Karl Barth on Holy Scripture’s Capacity for Error

Near the end of the 17th century, many theologians had come to a new understanding of Scripture that the older Reformers did not hold, such that "Should there be found even the minutest error in the Bible, then it is no longer wholly the Word of God, and the inviolability of its authority is destroyed" (Calov, pg552). Quenstedt (1685) wrote: "For if a single small verse of Scripture has been written with the unmediated flow of the Holy Spirit coming to a halt, then it would be easy for Satan to remove it (i.e. the inspiration of the Spirit) from a whole chapter, from a whole book, finally from the whole text of the Bible, and in consequence to take away the whole text of the Bible, and in consequence to take away the whole authority of the Scriptures". Karl Barth quoted these statements and many more in his discussion of "Scripture as the Word of God" in his Church Dogmatics I.2, §20.2. (See pg524-526).

Is this true? Would one single error overthrow all of the Holy Scriptures? Karl Barth would not agree. He says, quoting Luther, "There are two entities: God and the Scripture of God, which are no less than two entities, creator and creature of God." (pg508). There is an "infinite qualitative difference" between God and Man, as Kierkegaard has said. God in all His perfections is Truth and knows truth in a way that Man is 'fundamentally' unable to comprehend. Barth uses the following quotation from Augustine to help explain this dilemma: 

"For who can speak (the truth) as it is? I venture to say, my brothers, perhaps not even John himself spoke it as it is, but rather as he was able? Since man has said of God, and indeed has been inspired by God, but he is nevertheless still man. Since he has been inspired, he has said something; if he had not been inspired, he would have said nothing. But since man has been inspired, he has not said everything there is to say, rather, man has said what he could",
~ Augustine of Hippo, John Tract 1.1, as quoted by Karl Barth, pg 507
God is transcendent, and this is defined well for us in the verses such as Isaiah 55:8ff, Philippians 4:7, and others that teach us that God's self-understanding, and knowledge of all things is beyond what a finite creature, such as man, is ever able to comprehend, and His ways of communication within His social Trinitarian life is complete and fulfilled in such a way that human language and communication would ever be able to disclose. There is certainly an analogy of being between God and man, but there is no container in this creation that could ever hold the divine ocean of God's divine words.  God's communication is always complete, perfect and exhaustive, but Human communication is always finite, limited, and incomplete. Any writer may attest to how difficult it may be to communicate even simple and common experiences we all have and know into writing, such as love and life. Consider how hard it is to even define what it means to be 'alive'. And even the best definitions, like "animated sensitive substance" are never able to capture the fullness of what is being communicated.

NRSV Isaiah 55:8-9

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

NRSV Philippians 4:7

7 And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts
and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Barth has Doctrine of the Word of God provides an amazing explanation of how these Human words, with their capacity for error, that Scripture is composed in, reveals the Divine Word of God to us in its Threefold Form: Written, Revealed and Proclaimed, as in these three as a Unity. Barth's Doctrine of Scripture, teaches us how we may know all the Human Words of Scripture, and the Human Authors who spoke them, and what they spoke was a witness to the Divine Word as it had encountered them. This is the miracle, that despite the capacity of error of human words, the Divine Word has been spoken in them. Barth emphatically declares that despite this impossibility, God has spoken! Deus Dixit!
How is it so that a limited Man could speak an unlimited Divine word? Does man have such a capacity to speak of anything Divine in its fullest sense? This naturally raises the question of "does Scripture contains errors?", due to it being a human witness with all the limitations of being human. 
"First, there is the truism that we cannot expect or demand a compendium of solomonic or even divine knowledge of all things in heaven and earth, natural, historical and human, to be mediated to the prophets and apostles in and with their encounter with divine revelation, possessing which they have to be differentiated not only from their own but from every age as the bearers and representatives of an ideal culture and therefore as the inerrant proclaimers of all and every truth. They did not in fact possess any such compendium. Each in his own way and degree, they shared the culture of their age and environment, whose form and content could be contested by other ages and environments, and at certain points can still appear debatable to us. “Man has said what he could”. This means that we cannot overlook or deny it or even alter it. In the biblical view of the world and man we are constantly coming up against presuppositions which are not ours, and statements and judgments which we cannot accept. Therefore at bottom we cannot avoid the tensions which arise at this point. We must reckon with the fact that this may be possible in points of detail, and we must always be ready for it. Instead of talking about the “errors” of the biblical authors in this sphere, if we want to go to the heart of things it is better to speak only about their “capacity for errors.” For in the last resort even in relation to the general view of the world and man the insight and knowledge of our age can be neither divine nor even solomonic. But fundamentally we certainly have to face the objection and believe in spite of it!"
"But the vulnerability of the Bible, i.e., its capacity for error, also extends to its religious and theological content"

6. As to when, where and how the Bible shows itself to us in this event as the Word of God, we do not decide, but the Word of God Himself decides, at different times in the Church and with different men confirming and renewing the event of instituting and inspiring the prophets and apostles to be His witnesses and servants, so that in their written word they again live before us, not only as men who once spoke in Jerusalem and Samaria, to the Romans and Corinthians, but as men who in all the concreteness of their own situation and action speak to us here and now. We can know that in the life of the Church, and indeed in its life with the Bible, it is a matter of this decision and act of God or rather of the actualization of the act of God which took place once and for all in Jesus Christ. In the whole Bible it is always a matter of this act. We can remember that the Bible has really already been for ourselves and others the place of this act. We can and should expect this act afresh. We can and should cling to the written word, as Jesus commanded the Jews, and as the people of Beroea did. We can and should search the Scriptures asking about this witness. We can and should therefore pray that this witness may be made to us. But it does not lie—and this is why prayer must have the last word—in our power but only in God’s, that this event should take place and therefore this witness of Scripture be made to us. We are therefore absolved from trying to force this event to happen. This does not allow us to be unfaithful or indolent. It is the man who is faithful in seeking, asking and praying, who knows that the faithfulness of God and not his own faithfulness decides. But we are completely absolved from differentiating in the Bible between the divine and the human, the content and the form, the spirit and the letter, and then cautiously choosing the former and scornfully rejecting the latter. Always in the Bible as in all other human words we shall meet with both. And we may differentiate between them as we do in the understanding of a human word. But the event in which the word of man proves itself the Word of God is one which we cannot bring about by this differentiation. The Word of God is so powerful that it is not bound by what we think we can discover and value as the divine element, the content, the spirit of the Bible. Again, it is not so powerful that it will not bind itself to what we think we can value lightly as the human element, the form, the letter of the Bible. We are absolved from differentiating the Word of God in the Bible from other contents, infallible portions and expressions from the erroneous ones, the infallible from the fallible, and from imagining that by means of such discoveries we can create for ourselves encounters with the genuine Word of God in the Bible. 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, and, above all, their Judaism, 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. But finally we are absolved from having to know and name such the event or events, in which Scripture proves and confirms itself to us as the Word of God. We have seen that as the events of eternal presence of the Word, as hours of God, they cannot be grasped in time or can be grasped only in their before and after, in recollection and expectation. It is enough—and this is all that is required of us—that we should constantly approach these events and proceed from them. Similarly we cannot know our faith in its eternal form as our justification before God, but only as a movement “from faith into faith” (Rom 1:17), which as such is not justified. We can give to ourselves and to others an account of our faith; but we can only do so in thankfulness and hope, without showing the basis of our faith. And that is how we stand in relation to Holy Scripture. We can and must be summoned by it to thankfulness and hope. In obedience to this summons it will be seen in the reality and the judgment of God whether and to what extent we participate in the event of the presence to others, does not lie in the sphere of human possibility and therefore cannot be demanded of us. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Therefore the presence of the Word of God is not an experience, precisely because as it is the divine decision concerning us.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: Doctrine of the Word of God I.2, Pg 531-532

Barth has provided us a solution that does force us into despairing that Scripture consists only of Human words, such that we do not truly know God in them, and we avoid confusing the human words for Divine words, such that we do not error into thinking that we have contained God. We are able to know that in our humanity, God has taken our humanity upon ourselves, and especially in the Incarnation, God has revealed himself, in this threefold form, such that what Scripture witnesses too, is the true event of the Incarnation of Jesus. This is a higher view of scripture than we've ever known.

For more information, read Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics: Doctrine of the Word of God, §20 The Word of God for the Church, 2. Scripture as the Word of God.

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