Skip to content

Karl Barth & the Authority of Scripture

January 25, 2016

Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian (1886-1968), articulated views on the authority of Scripture in an attempt to rescue the Holy Word from the misinterpretation of liberals.[1] His thought has influenced those within the evangelical and non-evangelical traditions. It is because of his vast influence that the belief system known as Neo-orthodoxy came to prominence in the early 20th century. This writer will define the views of Barth with an additional emphasis on the implications of his thought and its effects on Christology. A brief theological, historical, expositional, and exegetical critique will also be provided. It is this writer’s conviction that Barth’s views on Scripture are considerably outside of the confines of orthodoxy.

Barth’s views on the Authority of Scripture

A treatment of Barth’s views must first begin with his foundational premises. These premises explain the context of his theology while also providing a framework for his views on the authority of Scripture. For example, Barth wrote, “The Word of God is God Himself in Scripture.”[2] Scripture, according to Barth, is the “witness of divine revelation.”[3] In other words, Barth asserts that the divinity of Christ and His humanity are dualistically present in the Scripture. Barth believes that the Scripture is both divine in essence and humane.[4]

Barth’s view can be categorized as Neo-Orthodoxy. Further explained, he would view Scripture as infallible and authoritative, only as it is perceived in this way by the one who demonstrates faith to believe the written word. Scripture is, therefore, a collection of witnesses to the event of the Word in the form of expectation and recollection. Scripture is not revelation, is not Word of God in itself, but contains ordinary human words that point away from themselves. As a result, revelation occurs through Scripture.[5] In other words, only through the ‘event’ of God bringing Himself to man for his experience and through His use of ‘human witnesses’ does Scripture “become the Revealed Word.”[6] The Word of God, is the Word of God when God freely chooses to be immediately present to men through them.[7]

The Scriptures were written and proclaimed by the apostles and prophets. For Barth, then, the prophets and apostles are said to be the foundation on which the church is built together with Christ the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). All of this gives the answer to an earlier question, on which side of the “great ontological divide” which distinguishes God from all things creaturely, would Barth place the canonical writings of the apostles and prophets? Barth would assert that the Scriptures precisely in their humanness stand on the divine side.[8]

While Barth readily admits that the Scriptures possess authority, it is an authority that must first be recognized, and then it becomes authoritative. How does one appropriate this authority of Scripture? He argues that it must be appropriated by faith. But faith is, as stated by Barth, to be a subjective trust, but it is held secondary to what a believer believes.[9] “I believe” implies a meeting with God whom the believer recognizes to determine his very existence.[10] This is related to an existential, theological paradigm which posits mans’ appropriated trust as a cooperative to the ‘witness’ of Scripture’s authority.

In summation Barth’s neo-orthodoxy finds its application in the Dynamic Theory of inspiration, which claims that Scripture merely records human reflection on historical encounters with God.[11] Neo-orthodoxy lends to the concept that the Scripture does not need to be rendered relevant to us; we must be rendered relevant to Scripture.[12] This view is deficient because it deprecates the propositional revelatory nature of Scripture.[13]

In order to arrive at his understanding of the authoritative word, Barth asks, “When do we take the humanity of Scripture quite seriously?”[14] This is the wrong beginning premise. For one, it immediately raises a false dichotomy considering inherent, divine authority. A fundamental bifurcation or dichtomoty within the Scripture does not exist. Furthermore, there is no ‘canon’ More importantly, it must not be an assumed thesis. Barth’s approach to Scripture begins the quest to know the ‘witness’ to Scripture through a fallible and faulty foundation. Barth’s theological reasoning, which is both subjective and anthropomorphic (man-centered), stands in the erroneous position of objectivity, while appraising theocentric truth and inevitably bows to the spirit of the age. In this case, that spirit is modernity.

Authority of Scripture: Church History

Historically, prior to the completion of the New Testament canon, the church believed that the oral and written forms of the apostolic witness to Christ worked in tandem.[15] Together, Scripture and apostolic tradition provided the foundation of truth for the early church.[16] The church’s task was not the authentication of the canon, but the recognition of the Scriptures God chose to inspire.[17] Although the apostolic ‘tradition would not be considered as a supplementary to the Holy Word, the apostolic tradition was clearly regarded as the vocal equivalent to the written record.[18] The authority of the church’s interpretation was not in opposition to the sufficiency of Scripture; rather it functioned as support for the proper understanding of sufficient Scripture over against heretical interpretations of it.[19]

The church fathers equally testified to the authoritative witness of the Scriptures in the objective sense. One example includes, Scripture citations by the author of 1 Clement.[20] Polycarp, a disciple of John the Apostle, also referred to the writings of Philippians, Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians, proving that the early church fathers believed in the doctrine of inspiration, while considering apostolic doctrine on par with divine revelation.[21] Papias, an early disciple to John the Apostle cited several verses of Scripture in his work entitled “Expositions of the Lord’s Sayings”.[22] In fact, there are traces of canonicity and authority in the testimony of the apostles toward one another (ex. 2 Peter 2).[23] By the 3rd and 4th century, virtually all of the NT books were recognized as the Holy Scripture.[24]

The church fathers did not believe in an existential, anthropomorphic, authoritativeness. This assumed authority governed the church in all matters of faith and practice, then and now. It was not binding because it had to be first experienced, rather it was binding because it came from God and God possesses sovereign rule over His creation. Therefore, contrary to Barth, Scripture is not a “faith-conditioned witness” to the eternal Word.[25] Scripture, both the Old and New Testament, is the word of God, transcending experience. When the Scriptures are read, the Word of God is read. They are God’s words grammatically, historically, and spiritually.

Theological Critique

Inevitably, a deprecation of the Word through neo-orthodoxy is a pathway to an unorthodox Christology. For example, Barth’s full consubstantiation (the belief that the elements of the Lord’s supper are co-existent with the body and blood of Christ), and his premise that the death of Jesus Christ must be thought of as merely history in the modern sense, while believing that the resurrection is allegory,[26] are heterodox conclusions. The God of the Word, the divine Logos, cannot be detached from the words He has spoken. Nor can the life of Christ be affirmed as historical, while His death relegated to matters of ‘spiritualism’ or ‘allegory’. A robust Christology begins with the affirmation that the authority of Scripture is the self-testimony of God.

Generally, how one defines ‘faith’ informs practice. It is important to note that Barth’s definition of faith as “subjective trust in the encounter with God”[27] is in disagreement with the definition in Scripture (Hebrews 11:1). For example, ‘encountering’ God, even for those who witnessed the first advent of Christ was not analogous to saving faith. Mere belief that Christ exists and recognition of Him, for the 1st century populace, did not assume true belief. In fact, James 1:9 provides a stern warning. A faith that does not submit to Christ and trust in His substitutionary atonement is a demonic ‘faith’. It is a drift away from orthodoxy and inadequate faith, to affirm the existence or an encounter with God, while denying any aspect of His salvation work.

Faith is more than ‘subjective’ trust, because faith must always find its expression toward an object. Christian faith is such because it is faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is the pinnacle of objectivity (John 14:6; John 8:24). In the case of the Christian, faith is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If faith is misdirected or redefined, then the authority of Scripture is undermined. When biblical faith is rightly defined, held, and proclaimed, then a high view of Scripture is upheld. True faith finds its hope in the nature of God Himself. While this writer would not align with the totality of his thinking, Cornelius Van Til’s words prove helpful. He wrote:

God’s nature is authoritarian. It is true inasmuch as it stands on its own merit as authoritative and does not need to rely upon the outside appraisal of any man or subject in order to be defined as true. It is true on its own authority, and the God of truth always provides revelation with clarity and verity.[28]
God’s authority is communicated to man solely through Scripture. Scripture appraises man, because he is a creation of God. Man is equally condemned as he comes to Scripture, because He is at enmity with God. God’s authority in Scripture comes to man as propositional truth in Christ, proclaiming to him the nature of his rebellion and alienation from God. More than just a witness of encounters in the lives of humans, the Scriptures confront, exhort, and reconcile. Assumed truth and light invades falsehood and darkness. The word of God is the word of God because it proceeds from God. The Scriptures assume divine, eternal authority (John 1:1). John MacArthur reminds us:

Unless the very words of Scripture are inspired and authoritative, man is left to his own resources to ferret out what seem to be underlying divine concepts and principles. Instead of discovering what has been called “the Word behind the words,” this deceptive approach inevitably leads to man judging the word of God in Scripture by his own sinful inclinations and distorted perceptions.[29]

The Scriptures are not particularly authoritative because we experience them. Any casual reader or cultist may have an experience with Scripture and come to faulty conclusions about the Word. The Word stands in the place of full authority and penetrates the reader with surgical and authoritative precision (Heb. 4:12). The difference is not experiencing the Scriptures, but doing what the Bible says (James 1:22). It is therefore the Bible that assumes absolute divine truth and testifies to man that he does not possess intrinsic ability to appropriate divine truth apart from the Spirit. The Word is presupposed truth, and the Spirit of God convicts the sinner to appreciate, appropriate, and proclaim them.

The Holy Spirit points to the truth in Scripture and obliterates all objections to it. In fact, conviction is not something a man can possess on his own- he must be born again. Therefore the word of God does not become the word of God, it is the Word of God and stands as an authority over mankind to reconcile sinners to God or condemn them in their sins. Understanding that Scripture is divine truth culminating in Christ is the testimony of Scripture (Col. 2:3). God condescends to men to give him truth; man can only respond because God condescends. The Word of God is thus an assumed authority, and man an assumed rebel who cannot rightly appropriate it until God convicts him. But the Word of God is the Word of God even if God were to allow men to remain their sins. It is powerful to save and powerful to condemn, whether ‘experienced’, obeyed, or rejected (John 8:30).

Jesus condemned the false religious leaders, not because they failed to desire an experience with Him, but because they misinterpreted that experience, the Scripture’s authority, and assumed that they were standing in the position to evaluate the verity of God’s claims (Matthew 7:9). They set aside the commandment of God for their traditions. They, like every sinner who rejects Christ, misappropriated what their experience with Christ should have been and crucified Him when he did not measure up to their standards. They believed that through their misinterpretations of the Mosaic Law, that they were experiencing Yahweh. However, when Jesus told them that their experience caused them to worship a god of their own making, they were murderously incensed. Faith and authority are not rooted in experience based on our terms. Faith is imparted to man through the Word of God in Christ (Rom. 10:8-9). Divine authority is then derived from the Scripture, not as we appraise its meaning, but as we submit to what is already revealed.

Jesus condemned of the religious leaders, who believed that Moses and the prophets would vindicate them, when in fact the word Moses had spoken was an indictment against them. (John 5:45-46) This ultimately points to the authority of Scripture in the mind of Christ. The teachings in Scripture, rejected by the Pharisees and religious leaders, were not awaiting verification until the Jews ‘met’ Christ. Jesus stood before them and told them that since they have met Him, they are condemned in Moses’ writings before the Lord if they persisted in rejection. By this account, Moses is not merely a witness or presenter of facts. Moses proclaimed propositional truth that equally served as prophetic prosecution against the Pharisees. God spoke through Moses, and the Jews were expected to comply.

The Pharisees were essentially awaiting an experience with their caricature of the Messiah, however, Moses’ writings, on par with the words of Christ were enough to condemn them for their rejection. It is nothing inherently in Moses that placed him on par with Christ. However, the words of Moses are Scripture in the same way that the words of Christ are authoritative Scripture. In both cases, the origins of the words are traced directly to Almighty God.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 “Theopneustos”

Divine authorship and human authorship are not held in contradiction, when considering the doctrine of the authority of Scripture. John Stott[30] wrote:

“It is essential, therefore, if we are to be true to the Bible’s own account of itself, to affirm its human as well as its divine authorship. Yet we must be careful to state the double authorship of Bible, in such a way as to maintain both the divine and the human factors, without allowing either to detract from the other.”[31]

Furthermore, the Scriptures were God’s working through men to write His words. God spoke through men in all stages of proclaimed and recorded revelation (Heb. 1:1). In finality, He spoke through Christ (Heb. 1:1). Christ is therefore the final and clearest revelation of God (John 14:8). In Him is all vested authority (Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:16; John 1:3). This does not become the truth when we ‘meet’ Him. It is the truth, because He is (Genesis 1:1, Exodus 3:14; John 8:58; Hebrews 11:6). Our vantage point as sinners in need of reconciliation does not allow us the authority to determine His existence and then worship. His existence and personhood is assumed and our identity before we ‘meet’ Him is as condemned criminal (John 3:17-21).

God-breathed His words and caused men to write them. When considering the grammatical construction of 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Paul is not simply saying that Scriptures are inspired in that they breathe out information about God, although the Scriptures provide information about God. However, Paul is saying that because the Scriptures are God-breathed they are inherently inspired and authoritative.[32] Additionally, grammatical implications in the passage, specifically “theopneustos,” define the Scripture as the Word of God. It does not become the word of God, but its origin is in the communicative

decree and ‘mind’ of God.[33] It is not a collection of the wisdom and insights of men, even of godly men. It is God’s truth, His own Word in His own words.[34]

There is no bifurcation in the consideration of divine authorship through human instruments. Scripture is not breathed into by God or is the product of the Divine “in-breathing” into its human authors, but that it is breathed out by God, “God breathed,” the creative breath of God.[35] God is Himself the author of the instruments He employs for the communication of His messages to men and has framed them into precisely the instruments He desired for the exact communication of His message.[36] B. B. Warfield described the Holy Scriptures as:

A Word of God in which God speaks directly to each of our souls. Such a word of God, Christ and His apostles offer us, when they give us the Scriptures, not as man’s report to us of what God says, but as the very Word of God itself, spoken by God Himself, through human lips and pens.[37]


Karl Barth’s reaction to liberalism carried him outside of the boundaries of orthodoxy. He is a reminder that the surest way to protect the truth is to, first, assume the truth and also assume the God of truth. His view has implications on how the Christian understands Theology Proper, Soteriology, and Christology. Furthermore, this writer has demonstrated that the annals of historical theology, and biblical theology testify to a sure word of prophecy in Scripture with its origins traced directly to the Divine Author.

The major flaw of the Barthinian perspective is that it excercises “theology from below” (man to God) instead of ‘theology from above’ (God to man). However, the traditional doctrine of the authority of Scripture upholds the nature of God and His chosen means of communicating to man. Scripture is not merely a witness to this reality, but it is the self-attesting, authoritative, objective Word from the only triune God (Romans 16:27; Jude 1:25).










Allison, Gregg R. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight. Vol. 1, The Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956.

Bahnsen, Greg L. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 1998.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, 1958.

Horton, Walter Marshall. “Neo-Orthodox conceptions of biblical authority.” Journal Of Religious Thought 5, no. 1 (September 1, 1948): 42-56. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2014).

Kaiser, Walter C. The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, ©2008.

Knight, George W. The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary On the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2009.

Lea, Thomas D., and Hayne P. Griffin. The New American Commentary. Vol. 34, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992.

MacArthur, John. 2 Timothy. The Macarthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.

_______. “The sufficiency of Scripture.” Master’s Seminary Journal 15, no. 2 (September 1, 2004): 165-174. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2014).

Mayhue, Richard L. “The authority of Scripture.” Master’s Seminary Journal 15, no. 2 (September 1, 2004): 227-236. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2014).

McCune, Rolland. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume 1. Allen Park, Mich.: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009.

Morrison, John. “Barth, Barthinians, and Evangelicals: Reassessing the Question of the Relation of Holy Scripture and the Word of God.” Trinity Journal 25, no. 2 (September 1, 2004): 187-213.

Rochelle, Jay C. “Bonhoeffer and Biblical Interpretation : Reading Scripture in the Spirit.” Currents In Theology And Mission 22, no. 2 (April 1, 1995): 85-95. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2014).

Schreiner, Thomas R. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Slaatte, Howard Alexander. The Paradox of Existentialist Theology: The Dialectics of a Faith-Subsumed Reason-in-existence. New York: Humanities Press, 1971.

Stott, John. Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans, 1982.

Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Edited by Samuel G. Craig and Cornelius Van Til. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1948.


[1] G.W. Bromiley, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Inspiration,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 87 (1955): 66-80. (Accessed November 21, 2014)
[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, vol. 1, The Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 457.
[3]Ibid., 457-62.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Morrison, “Barth, Barthinians, and Evangelicals: Reassessing the Question of the Relation of Holy Scripture and the Word of God,” Trinity Journal 25, no. 2 (September 1, 2004): 197-98.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 194.

[9] Howard Alexander Slaatte, The Paradox of Existentialist Theology: The Dialectics of a Faith-Subsumed Reason-in-existence (New York: Humanities Press, 1971), 39.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume 1 (Allen Park, Mich.: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 80.
[12] Jay C. Rochelle, “Bonhoeffer and Biblical Interpretation: Reading Scripture in the Spirit,” Currents in Theology and Mission 22, no. 2 (April 1, 1995): 85-95. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2014).
[13] Ibid.


[14] Barth, Church Dogmatics, 464.

[15] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 146.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Andreas J. Köstenberger, L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009), 4.
[18] Allison, Historical Theology, 146-47.
[19] Ibid.

[20] Kostenberger et. al, Cross, Cradle, and Crown, 6.

[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 7.
[23] Ibid., 5.
[24] Ibid., 7.
[25] Slaate, Paradox of Existential Theology, 6

[26] Ibid., 45.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 1998), 210-11.
[29] John MacArthur, 1 Timothy, The Macarthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 148.


[30] . There is great irony in John Stott as the annihilationist, verbalizing the authority of Scripture. To his thoughts only here this writer appeals, but not to the sum of his theology:
[31] John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 97.

[32] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, NAC, vol. 34, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 236.
[33] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary On the Greek Text, NIGCT (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 1.
[34] MacArthur, Pastoral Epistles, 143.
[35] B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel G. Craig and Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1948), 148.
[36] Ibid., 92.
[37] Ibid., 125.

*Image courtesy of Time Magazine April 20, 1962.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: