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Are We All Barthians Now?

Inquiry by Christian McShaffrey

Explanation by G.I. Williamson

The writings of G.I. Williamson were very influential in my life as a young Christian. His love for Scripture inspired me to receive the teachings of the Holy Bible with an implicit kind of faith.

I continue to recommend his study guide on the Westminster Shorter Catechism to catechumens and was recently reminded of his expert ability to communicate complex theological concepts to readers of all ages.

For example, the Barthian, or Neo-orthodox, view of Scripture is not the easiest thing to explain, but it is essential that Christians understand it. It is a very subtle heresy that starts with one small-but-sinister step:

Separating the “text” of God’s Word from the “truth” of God’s Word.

People prove their willigness to do this in a vareity of ways, but one of the most common seems to be the church’s increased tolerance for textual variants and contemporary translations.

Whenever someone (like me) complains about a word being deleted or changed, the concern is immediately rejected with the ready response, “It doesn’t ultimately matter because no doctrine is affected.”

Is this the way Reformed Christians now view Scripture? Is the “text” actually expendable so long as “truth” is preserved? If so, then how is this essentially different from Barthianism?

G.I. graciously granted me permission to repost the chapter from his study guide that exposes the error of Barthianism. As you read it, and especially as you come to the illustrations, try to put yourself in “Shorty’s” shoes for a minute or two. Which image best illustrates your view of Scripture? Could it be that we are all Barthians now? I certainly hope not, but sometimes I do wonder.

Christian McShaffrey
Pastor, Five Solas Church

Chapter Two

The WSC Study Guide

By G.I. Williamson

Q. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

“If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life…” (Revelation 22:18-19).


Strange as it may seem, Jesus once said that God has “hid . . . things from the wise and prudent, and . . . revealed them unto babes” (Luke 10:21). In other words, some of the most intelligent and best-educated people lack true wisdom. And some very simple people who are not well educated have true wisdom.

The reason for this is that man, of himself, cannot really come to the knowledge of the truth. The more man learns by his own effort (by the unaided power of his own mind), the more he faces the unknown. Just as a balloon, when it is blown up, expands in every direction, so does man’s learning bring him face to face with the endless mystery of the wonderful works of God.

For example, new and more powerful telescopes have been invented by men in order that they might study the secrets of the stars. But what has been the result? The result has been this: they now have many millions of new stars to study!

This is one reason why scientific theory is constantly changing. For the more men discover, the more they also discover how much more there is that they do not know. Thus, because men cannot know everything (there is just too much!), they finally get discouraged and realize that they cannot really know anything for sure.  

Two Kinds of Revelation

Now the reason for this is that God did not make man to know everything (or, for that matter, anything) by his own power. Only God knows everything, and so, from the beginning, only God could give to man a sure knowledge of anything at all. From the beginning, this knowledge came to man in two ways:

(1) The first way in which God revealed himself is what we call natural revelation.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” says the Psalmist; “and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Ps. 19:1). “The invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20).

(2) The second way in which God revealed himself is what we call special revelation.

For even in paradise God spoke to Adam. Adam had God’s word in addition to his works. Adam, by his study of nature, could know much. But he could not know all. He could not know, for example, what had not yet come to pass. In order to be sure of so “simple” a thing as eating fruit from a tree, it was necessary for him to interpret the “facts of nature” in the “light of God’s word.”

When Adam sinned against God, he rejected God’s word. He acted as if he did not need God to tell him what was right. Instead, he decided to try the so-called “scientific method” (that is, the “trial and error” method of discovering truth. And from that time to this, Adam and all his posterity (except for those who come to salvation through Jesus Christ) have walked in darkness.

This is not because of any “darkness” in God’s revelation. The “light” of God still shines brightly in everything that that God has made. But if man in the beginning (sinless Adam) could not understand the “light” of nature, without the “light” of God’s word, how much more is this true for us! For the only way in which man can be saved from sin is revealed in the Bible alone.

The revelation of God in nature is sufficient to leave men without excuse. It shows them the glory of the true God so that they ought to worship and serve him. But it is only in the Bible that men actually can learn what they must believe (in order to be saved from sin) and do (in order to serve God once more).

The Meaning of “Contained In”

But what does the Catechism mean when it says that “the word of God . . . is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments?” By these words we are to understand that the very words which we find in the Bible are from God. However, in order to understand this clearly, we need to understand the wrong way in which these words (contained in) have been taken.

Since the time that this Catechism was written, clever men have tried to use the same words (“contained in”) with a meaning very different from what is intended by the Catechism.


The first, illustrated above, is called Liberalism (or “the older modernism”).

Those who hold this view believe that some parts of the Bible are the word of God ( ____ ), and that other parts are the word of man ( . . . . ).

They believe that they can decide for themselves which part is true and which part is false.


The second, illustrated above, is called Neo-orthodoxy (or, the “new modernism”). This view is found today in many Protestant denominations. It is sometimes called “Barthianism” (after a famous theologian, Karl Barth).

Men who believe this view say that the whole Bible is the fallible word of man. But they say that when people read these words of man ( . . . . ), God somehow uses these words so that through them they receive (in their own minds) the true word of God ( ____ ). Any part of the Bible can be the means by which the word of God comes to man, but it may be one part of the Bible that “speaks” to one man, and another part that “speaks” to another man.


The third, illustrated above, is the Reformed view. This is the view of the historic Christian faith. This is the view which is taught in the Catechism.

Those who hold to this view believe that the whole Bible (every single word) is the truth of God. No part is uninspired. And even when the Bible is read by an unbeliever, it is still the word of God from cover to cover.

In other words, the Bible is the word of God ( ____ ).

Three Important Characteristics

If the Bible is the word of God, the only rule to direct us how we may glorify God and enjoy him forever, then three further things may be said.

(1) First, we may say that the Bible is infallible.

This means that everything that the Bible says is true. This does not mean that you can take every statement of the Bible as true appart from its context (or setting). For example, Psalm 53:1, says, “There is no God!” But this is only part of the statement. The whole statement reads: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Only when we read the whole Bible and understand what it means can we say that every statement is infallible.

(2) In the second place, we may say that the Bible is clear.

The Scriptures were written so that ordinary people could understand them. God speaks directly to children even (Eph. 6:1-3). Some churches deny this. They say that it is only the priests or scholars who can understand the Bible. (It is true, of course, that there is much in the Bible that we do not understand. Even scholars have more to learn). But God, by his Holy Spirit, can and does lead ordinary people to understand quite clearly the things they need to know in order to be saved.

(3) And finally, we may say that the Bible is sufficient (we do not need something else in addition to the Bible in order to know what we need to know).

Many false religions deny this. The Roman Catholic Church says that we need tradition as well as the Bible. Mormons say that the Book of Mormon is needed as well as the Bible. Modernists tell us that we need “the findings of science” as well as the Bible. But Jesus said that the Bible is sufficient by itself (Rev. 22:18-20). The man who has the Bible, says the Bible itself, is “thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

And what about the Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms of Reformed churches? Well, we must always remember that these stand far below the Bible. They are not intended to be, and must not be treated as if they are, equal to the Bible in any way. We use them as convenient summaries of the teaching of the Bible. But we must never be content to just “believe the Catechism.” We must always make sure that we personally prove the teaching of the Catechism by the Bible. Only then will our faith be acceptable and secure.