You Can Lead a Man to Living Water, But You Can�t Make Him Drink

by Sean Nolan December 15, 2015

In a previous post I touched upon the delicate balance between offering clichéd proof texts from Scripture and using God’s Word to minister to people. In that post I referenced a popularized statement by Karl Barth. Anyone familiar with his view of Scripture may know that he stopped short of calling the Bible inspired. In essence, he confused the inspiration of Scripture with the illumination of Scripture. The nuances of what I began writing about in that previous post, if misunderstood, could lead to similar confusion. I hope here to clarify the difference between the two and affirm what Barth did not.

The Inspired Word of God

Saying that Scripture is inspired is simply to say that the words in the Bible are the actual words of God (the classic text for supporting this doctrine is 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Everything else that Christians believe about God and the Bible builds on this foundation. If the words in the Bible are not God’s words, or only some of God’s words mixed with the words of men, then our trust in the Bible is undermined and we are left with the untenable situation in which we have to determine what words are God’s and what words are not. In such a situation there is no other authority to which we can appeal, as the Bible, historically viewed as the highest authority for Christian faith and conduct, cannot be trusted.

Barth did not trust the divine inspiration of Scripture. He famously referred to it as a “paper pope” as an attempt to undermine those in Protestant circles who would submit to it as a final authority much the same as Roman Catholics would submit to the final authority of the pope. Rather than viewing the Bible as the very words of God, Barth taught that the Bible was the words of men to witness to God and that when Christians read the Bible in faith it then becomes the Word of God. To be sure, his view is complicated and nuanced, but problematic.

The Illumined Word of God

What Barth seems to confuse is the dynamic, experiential aspect of illumination and the static, objective nature of Scripture’s inspiration. Just as the big “E” on the eye chart cannot be read unless there is light in the room, Scripture does not penetrate a hardened human heart unless the Holy Spirit gives a spiritual understanding. Illumination is the act of God in which He enlightens a previously darkened heart to receive His words in Scripture (see 1 Cor. 2:9-13). This is not to say that a non-believer does not understand the words of Scripture, it simply means they will have no meaningful affect on his life.

For all the benefits the Church has reaped from Barth, his clouded waters on inspiration and illumination are not one of them. Perhaps we can glean a pastoral principle from him nonetheless.

Objective Truth and Experiential Transformation

It is objective fact that the Mariana Trench is the deepest point in all the oceans, whether or not I believe it does not change its objectivity. However, those that have attempted to explore its depths have experienced this in personal and life changing ways that I will not fully appreciate, having never been there. Similarly, the Scriptures are God’s inspired revelation to mankind regardless of whether or not they are recognized by a particular individual. But those that plunge the depths of Scripture in humility, searching for God, meet Him there and are changed. This is the subjective element of Scripture. A Christ-follower, with the indwelling Holy Spirit, has His help in illuminating God’s Word for comprehension that leads to obedience and a better communion with Him.

While Barth undermined the authority of Scripture alone, his emphasis on experiencing and communing with Christ was commendable. Those that serve as shepherds in God’s Church do well to boldly emphasize that the Bible is accurate, trustworthy, and authoritative. But we do a disservice to the flock if we stop there. We must persuade people to place their trust in Christ and Him alone. When Jesus stood among the Pharisees He warned them: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). It is possible to have a fascination with the Bible that does not lead to faith in Christ. It is possible that we memorize Scripture and excel at Bible trivia but never trust Jesus for salvation. While we want to be careful not to confuse the doctrines of inspiration and illumination, there are perhaps worse fates. The Bible is God’s chosen and perfect way to reveal Himself to us, but like the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, it is only effective when we use it to access the Lion that defeated sin and death.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.