On Trusting the Bible

Funny, just yesterday I post a few musings about what might be hot topics, I sort of give B list status to “what’s the Bible and what are we supposed to do about it,” and then the onslaught.

First, there was Rachel Held Evans’ indication that this is going to be a big topic for her this year: we need to learn to love the Bible we actually have.

Then there was an email message from someone taking a church history course that had come to the point of dealing with Neoorthodoxy and Karl Barth in particular.

Here’s how it’s all connected.

The student taking the church history class was getting an assessment of Neo-Orthodoxy from a prof at a school with an inerrancy statement. So there’s a presumption of a high view of scripture here–which is a point at which more conservative Evangelicals have routinely chided the Neo-Orthodox.

A summary of his assessment was this: the Neo-Orthodox were reacting against historical Jesus scholarship, and separated actual history from interpreted history. In retreating from actual history, Barth, Bultmann and Brunner severed the link between what actually happened and scripture. As a historian, this prof says that we have to affirm the actual history relayed in the text.

Here are a few thoughts: first, Barth and Bultmann were doing very different projects. Bultmann was moving away from a historicized Jesus in favor of a demythologized Jesus who confronts believers in an existential moment of decision. He is intentionally recontextualizing Jesus into the framework provided by existentialism.

Barth was doing something very different, inasmuch as he was calling the church back to scripture as the authoritative witness to Jesus as the incarnate word of God.

But here’s the more important point for today’s discussion: the inerrantist church history professor is calling us to a Jesus we have no access to, in denial of the Bible we actually have, in order to uphold his “high view” of scripture.

In reaffirming the centrality of the historical Jesus, the professor has done several things at once. First, he has affirmed the centrality of a kind of access to Jesus that God has not seen fit to give to the church. We do not have a historical Jesus record, we have theologically crafted narratives that interpret Jesus for the church.

Second, in so affirming this need, he denies the sufficiency of the Bible we actually have. Barth was right: the Gospels are witnesses to the incarnate logos, and this is what God has given us. To insist on the centrality of the historical Jesus is not only to clamor for what we do not have, it is to misunderstand the nature of the Gospels as historical documents that tell about historical events.

It’s both as historians and theologians that we must acknowledge that the Gospels are interpreted, theologically laden narratives–and that this is just what God wanted us to have.

Ironically, the conservative rejection of Neo-Orthodoxy in the name of a “high” view of scripture, at least in the case of Barth, ends up as a rejection of the Bible we actually have in favor of a man-made construct that does not match up with it.

We do not need to fear the theologically-laden, deeply interested, and individually shaped narratives of Jesus that God has given us. We need to find ways to celebrate that our God has given us precisely this Bible rather than the one we so often would prefer.

36 thoughts on “On Trusting the Bible”

  1. We’re not saved by the actions and words of the “historical” Jesus but by Jesus Christ “as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture” (Barmen Declaration).


  2. This is a magnificent truth “It’s both as historians and theologians that we must acknowledge that the Gospels are interpreted, theologically laden narratives” but then you go on with this clause “–and that this is just what God wanted us to have.”

    Why do we talk about the Bible as being God-given or God-breathed? I understand that parts of texts we call scripture refer to other texts we call scripture in this way in a neat little tautological circle, but other parts of scripture talk about other things as being God-breathed such as ‘all things that live’. From a certain perspective of God’s sovereign creative power we could talk of anything as being God-given, but when we talk about scripture in this way we mean it in a special higher sense, don’t we? We don’t think of the Bible as coming from God in the same way that, say, e.coli comes from God.

    Why do we persist in talking about the Bible as “inspired” in opposition to other things which we don’t give this label to, when study and analysis suggest that the process of inspiration and transmission of scripture is notable for being exactly like the inspiration and transmission of other texts/art etc..? Perhaps our study of scripture isn’t leading us to understand that scripture is un-inspired or needs some sort of doctrinal protective circle drawn around it to keep it distinct from other works of literature. Perhaps we’re meant to understand that this is how inspiration works and we should embrace more of literature and art as being God-breathed since it comes about through the same creative process.

    1. This is part of what it means to affirm the gospel, to me: not only that Jesus died, but that Jesus died “according to the scriptures,” and was buried, and was raised again on the third day “according to the scriptures.”

      Giving special place to this text as witness to the word and work of God is part of what I take as “given” for us who affirm Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. It’s God’s word in some sense because it is the story of this person (ultimately).

      And I say that with all due apprehension of the humanness that marks scripture at every turn.

      Yes, this is circular: I believe, and therefore I believe that this scripture is specially “word of God.” It’s the same claim I’d make about the Koran if I believed that Mohammed was God’s prophet.

  3. FWIW Brunner agrees with your take – here is Brunner on Barth on ‘inerrancy’ in Scripture:

    ‘Indeed, Barth even speaks of the possibility of error in the religious, that is, theological content, of the Bible (I, 2, p. 565). Thus he arrives at a definite and clear rejection of the the orthodox view of the Bible (I, 2, 580ff) and returns to the original principal of the Reformation. The same view is contained in my book Religionsphilosophie evangelischer Theologie

  4. Love this clear presentation of this important issue. Follow up question – What are (if there are) the strengths of Bultmann’s approach that can help our own?

    1. Two thoughts, Lindsey. And thanks for pushing me on this. I haven”t really thought through the question before:

      (1) Joel Marcus spoke wise words to me one day when I was at Duke, saying, “You’ll never understand Bultmann until you realize that he was a missionary to the physicist down the hall.” Bultmann was striving, in his own way, to help his generation come to grips with Jesus in its own time.

      (2) Bultmann insisted that we never allow Jesus, or Jesus’ significance, to remain constrained in some static events of the past. The God who is at work in Jesus confronts us, now, with the in-breaking call to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

  5. Personally, I have a soft spot for Bultmann for this very reason. I am pursuing a little work on Bultmann (even though I’m an NT scholar, and not a “theology” student) and am fascinated that he gets such harsh reception.

  6. I too feel as if Bultmann is demonized, he wasn’t some skeptical outsider but a churchman who wanted to make the gospel’s meaningful to his generation. I don’t agree with him on everything, then again who agress with anybody on everything? But I still value him as a theologian and a scholar.
    Though I think he gets his bad reputation because many, including myself to a smaller extent, feel as if he divorces the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. In other words, many feel as if he is saying we should forget Jesus as he was for a mythological construct intended for a modern audience.
    As for the relationship between history and faith. I think it is more complicated than that. While it is true that the gospels are theological narratives with a built in interpretation of Jesus, they are at least rooted in his character. It’s not as if the early Christians only came to faith after the resurrection, they first came to believe with the call, “follow me”.
    Anyway, as someone from the Roman Catholic tradition, I found Raymond Brown’s remarks helpful (interestingly enough, Bultmann is mentioned):

    On the other hand, the Bultmannian reaction to the quest [for the historical Jesus], which almost makes faith independent of (inevitably uncertain) historical research, need not be the only solution. Indeed, one can argue that churches and believers should not be indifferent to careful historical scholarship about the Bible. Rather, leavening and rephrasing traditional ideas under the impact of careful scholarship is better than either overthrowing the ideas or ignoring scholarship. Following the principle of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking intellectually respectable expression), Christian belief has nothing to fear solid, careful scholarly research. Such a position requires openness on both sides. On the part of church authorities, there should be a recognition that past phrasings of faith are time-conditioned and are susceptible to being rephrased. Through critical biblical study, what was once assumed to be a necessary aspect of belief (e.g., creation in six days with rest on the seventh) may prove to be only a dramatic way of phrasing what remains essential (namely, that no matter how things came into existence, it was through God’s planning and power). For their part scholars would do well to avoid rhetoric whereby their discoveries are presented as certain, making the discoverers the infallible arbiters of Christian faith. Biblical books are documents written by those who believed in the God of Abraham and the Father of Jesus Christ; good sense suggests that communities sharing that faith have an authority in dealing with those books. (page 828)

  7. Bravo for a good post. I might also add that the prof insisting on a historical Jesus is doing precisely what the Jesus seminar does: We must have historical reliability for our faith to be valid!

    The JSem tries to achieve this through applying a certain type of reasoning to reach behind the text and reconstruct the HistJ while the inerrantist insists on the text *being* historically accurate in a way that meets 20th (sic!) century criteria for reliable history rather than 1st century criteria for a reliable witness.

  8. Bultmann is demonized, and properly so as Eta Linneman (a student of his, clearly explains) : “When Professor Bultmann came to the next verse, he said, “Here Paul is not at the usual height of his theology because he is speaking of the resurrection of Christ as if it were a historical fact.” Thus I learned as a young student in my very first term that we were not allowed to think of the resurrection of Christ as a historical fact. This great professor had said it, so it had to be. After all, how could I, as a young student, know more than my professors!” [Note to Daniel, notice the danger of relying on the "experts" for one's information].

    Eta Linneman had to throw off the influence of Bultmann and the higher critical scholars to come to faith. Perhaps her most damning statement: “So the purpose of these people is to demythologize the Bible. To do so, they must come up with ideas to explain away what is plainly stated in it, what God said and did. That, of course, is a difficult task. So such theologians have to work hard, giving much time and money to this task, all the while thinking that what they are doing is right. But they are on the wrong track. Not only do they not reach their goal, but they also lead many people astray with them. I have been such a theologian, but the Lord has forgiven me.”

    Read the whole testimony here: http://www.gracevalley.org/sermon_trans/Special_Speakers/Eta_Linnemann_Testimony.html

    1. John, I agree that Bultmann has some serious, even fatal problems. Demythologizing is ultimately problematic–as is his denial of resurrection. But is there anything good in him? Yes, at least in intention…

  9. Lee, was anyone saved before the inscripturation of the apostolic witnesses? I think we need to be careful in making too radical of a dichotomy between Text as Scripture and Person (Jesus) or Event (Cross, Resurrection). Do we really want to say that God didn’t do anything in those events/Person until Scripture?

  10. Dr. Kirk, just curious, but what inerrantists are you reading? I’ve been studying Karl Barth and Carl F. H. Henry for about a year now on the subject of the Word of God, Scripture, and revelation, and very little of what you’ve written above resonates with these writers. . .

    1. Michael, I’m a bit confused by your question. What of what I’ve said doesn’t resonate with whom? Those two writers you cite are quite different, so I’m assuming that what I say isn’t going to resonate with both. You ask about inerrantists, but then bring in Barth who wasn’t one. Can you come at it again?

      1. I did not intend to suggest Barth as an inerrantist. I’m sorry. My question is simple: What inerrantists have you read (on the subject of inerrancy)?

  11. Pingback: Trusting the Bible
  12. “We do not have a historical Jesus record, we have theologically crafted narratives that interpret Jesus for the church.”

    In the terms of this contrast, do we have a historical record of anything? Aren’t all records “theologically crafted narrative that interpret” their topic for the reader?

    Or am I overstating the bias of history as practiced?


    1. John: as someone who studies a lot of history and historiography, I would answer your question with: Yes.

      (of course, I have leanings toward a moderate historicism view of history)

  13. It still intrigues me to know how Bruce McCormack’s work on Barth has been so widely received and yet the thesis that he clearly defeats – that of the “Neoorthodox Barth” – still gets pawned off on unsuspecting young evangelicals. I guess, like his subject, McCormack often cited and praised but little read.

  14. I think making the Bible into something it is not is a form of idolatry. This is because the Bible is authoritative for a believer, so distorting what it actually does say into something it does not actually say is akin to forming a golden calf.

  15. This discussion links in with some work I am currently doing on eyewitness testimony and John. Richard Bauckham has published quite a lot on this in the last few years and I think he is overly optimistic about just how much history we can access, but he and a number of others are suggesting a middle ground between ‘this is literal fact’ and ‘they made it all up’. James Charlesworth, ‘The Historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: A Paradigm Shift?’, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 8 (1) (2010), pp. 3-46 provides a useful summary.

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