Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 4

The Historical Critical Method
As has been frequently pointed out the historical critical method, rooted in the intellectual paradigm of the Enlightenment, is based on assumptions which are no more neutral than those it sought to challenge.[1] Its inception marked the shift from a hermeneutic of trust to a hermeneutic of suspicion. For our purpose here it can be argued that the historical critical method, when used as the primary method of exegesis and hermeneutics, sets as a rule, or canon, a variety of judgements. For example, when reading the gospels, it is assumed a priori that the miracles reported there cannot have a basis in reality as miracles do not happen.[2] This is in effect an inner canon as some parts of Scripture are accepted as being ‘a locus of truth’ and others not. This was seen, for example, in Liberal Protestantism’s focus on the ethical teaching of Jesus, perhaps most notably by Baur and Ritschl.

Sometimes the historical critical method operates with an inner canon in a more subtle way. This is the case with, for example, source criticism. Whilst it would be easy to argue that many source critical theories are highly questionable, there is nothing wrong in principle with examining textual evolution and the relationship of the canonical text with some hypothetical precursors. However, some would use the findings of this type of work to argue for recognition of some hypothetical reconstruction as in some ways normative and a ruler against which canonical texts should be measured.

Another way of looking at this is that one of the underlying dynamics of the historical critical method is fundamentally at odds with the idea that the Bible in some way mediates revelation. It is a truism of the critical method that understanding of the meaning of the text is always provisional[3] and built on hypothetical constructions which by their very nature are transient awaiting the next piece of data; data which often comes from sources outside of the Bible itself. To use and extend Barth’s analogy of the interpreter as a prodigal son[4] the historical critical interpreter who is wholly committed to its core rationale is in danger of not only living in rags and squalor but also of remaining unrepentant in seeking an inheritance as if God the father were dead.

The logical end point of the historical critical approach can be seen in the activities of the Jesus Seminar.[5] Here what might be deemed the authentic words of Jesus, and perhaps judged by some to be canonical, are voted on by a group of self-selecting scholars. One of the members of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, has developed this point canonically in suggesting there need to be two new canons, a smaller and a larger one;[6] the smaller canon which is reliable in its historical basis, the larger one being a collection of all extent Christian writing from around the New Testament period. This of course raises two immediate problems which Funk does not entertain, let alone answer:

  1. Such a notion contradicts the general meaning of the term canon, whether it means a selective list or an identification of texts which are in some sense an epistemic norm. Making the larger canon consist of all extant texts is hardly a selective list! As Wright points out using all sources as historical data is good scholarly practice[7] but making them all canonical is at best misleading.
  2. By definition the smaller canon would be highly contested and provisional. How could a changing canon or a range of competing smaller canons proposed by different scholars serve the Church?

Gadamer’s observation that the Enlightenment, in which the historical critical method is rooted, has a “prejudice against prejudice” is apposite here.[8] The Enlightenment’s flawed pretence at objectivity gives, ironically, a different stance of prejudice. By privileging diachronic rather than synchronic relationships,[9] the committed historical critic effectively plays a power game with the text in which the Guild is made king of the text.

The three areas examined thus far indicate that an inner canon is a notion central to large sections of recent, and not such recent, interpretive work. The three areas also exemplify the intimate relationship between inner canons and the presuppositions of the interpreter.

[1] So, for example, Gadamer, Truth, p.277-285, Wright, People, p.15 and Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, p.xxvff.
[2] So Bultmann, Exegesis, pp.290-291.
[3] See Watson, Text, pp.46-53 who explores this point helpfully.
[4] See Barth CD I/1 p.729.
[5] See Wright, Jesus, pp.29-35 for a judicious summary of their activities.
[6] Funk, New Testament, p.555.
[7] Wright, Jesus, p.30.
[8] Gadamer, Truth, pp.270ff.
[9] See Watson, Text, p.34 and passim for the competition between diachronic and synchronic relationships.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 3

Recent Feminist Interpretive Approaches
Those critical of attempts to find a feminist interpretive framework to the Bible often criticise proponents as operating with an inner canon. It is easy to see why, as like all contextual theology, feminist theologies start with a specific concern. Abraham, however, praises feminist interpreters in the sense that that, in his judgement, they have reversed the harmful post-Fathers’ trajectory of shifting Scripture from a means of grace to an epistemic norm. He argues that fundamental to such approaches is the recognition that the canon must be a ‘means of healing and liberation’.[1] However, surely such an approach becomes an epistemic one in the sense that the Biblical canon is inevitably narrowed either by discarding, in some manner, those texts that are ‘dark’ to a feminist agenda or by relativizing them by texts more conducive to such an approach? Either way there is not only an inner canon but it functions epistemically.

Even those who count themselves as feminist interpreters recognise that some such approaches do indeed operate with an inner canon. For example, Schüssler Fiorenza defends herself against such a claim,[2] but accuses the feminist biblical interpreters, Cady, Stanton and Russell, of just such a mistake.[3] We might go further and argue that even this appraisal of Russell, for example, is an optimistic one in that Russell would separate the Bible into script and Scripture.[4] Script here is so historically relativised as to be normative in no sense at all; it becomes essentially a piece of background literature like extra-biblical texts such as the Didache. In this way there is an inner canon, but in the sense that it becomes the canon.[5]

It has been suggested that whilst Schüssler Fiorenza might be judged on this basis as more moderate, her proposals also amount to an inner canon by the canonisation of her historical reconstruction.[6] Ng goes on to argue that all attempts to deal with texts like Galatians 3:28, that challenge the traditional interpretation of male headship are based a priori on an inner canon and are thus not legitimate.[7]

Can the claims of such critics of Schüssler Fiorenza be judged to be fair? Given the topics she is most concerned with, will not any historical reconstruction make explicit, or at least implicit, decisions about gender issues in both society and the early church? Schüssler Fiorenza’s approach is illuminating however in that she is openly critical of those who argue for a neutral stance.[8] Her approach is one of integrity in that her presuppositions are made clear in her work. Indeed her methodology is essentially a critical realist one along the lines suggested by Wright.[9]

[1] Abraham, Canon, p.434.
[2] Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, p.xxi.
[3] See Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, pp.13-15.
[4] Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, pp.15-16.
[5] See, for example, Ng, Origins, p.368.
[6] So Ng, Origins, p.329.
[7] Ng, Origins, p.390.
[8] See Abraham, Canon, p.448.
[9] See Wright, People, pp.32-46.

Psalmtweets: Psalms 41-50

Our journey continues with these 10 psalms. We continue our effort to use individual psalms to define the Psalter.

Psalm 41:
The Psalms celebrate the faithful’s care for the helpless and the poor.

Psalm 42:
Thirsting for God is a normal part of the life of faith according to the Psalter.

Psalm 43:
The Psalms know nothing of an abstract God; Yahweh is the God of Jacob and of Jesus Christ.
He is our God.

Psalm 44:
Yahweh planted Israel and the Church.
God’s people are blessed by God and yet opposed by many.

Psalm 45:
The Psalms inspire creativity in worship;
Poetry, song, prose, music, art and even tweets.

Psalm 46:
We don’t journey for long on the life of faith before being grateful that Yahweh is a very present help in trouble.

Psalm 47:
The Book of Praises exhorts us to praise without ceasing.

Psalm 48:
The Psalms describe the city of our God and guide us on the path to it.

Psalm 49:
The Psalms are for everyone, rich and poor alike. But who will listen?

Psalm 50:
The Psalms, like the Law and Prophets, show that social justice and society’s cohesiveness are God’s priority.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 2

The Relationship between Romans and the Epistle of James
The relationship between interpretations of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the letter of James took on a new note during the Reformation. Luther’s new-found emphasis on the centrality of justification by faith led him to question the value of James in no uncertain terms. He famously labelled it as ‘the epistle of straw’, seeing Paul’s Romans as the real locus of truth. Our concern here is not to settle a discussion which, in some quarters, still lives on. Rather it needs to be recognised that in this debate there are some who would recognise the normative value of one part of Scripture (Romans in this case) to the point where another part of Scripture is challenged, resulting in either its marginalisation (in the extreme the decanonization of a text) or interpretation through the normative text.

The nature of Romans as an inner canon varies. Dunn argues that in general, Protestantism has used the Pauline corpus as an inner canon whereas Lutheran theologians have in a sense gone further and used a doctrine of justification by faith as an inner canon.[1] Though there might be grounds to challenge the former as an over generalisation, some Lutheran theologians themselves actively recognise that they use justification by faith as an inner canon.[2] Whilst this use of an inner canon is a honestly open one, can this really be a sensible approach? As Wall notes, if the letter of James is read through the prior framework of a reading of Romans then some of the meaning and nuance of James will simply be lost.[3]

Elsewhere Luther justifies a broader, but essentially similar argument, in an exhortation to use an inner canon, that has become essentially a maxim in the Protestant church, namely the notion that clear texts can be used to interpret what Luther terms ‘dark passages’.[4] Whilst this so-called analogia scripturae might seem commendably logical, it has been frequently noted that there is not always unanimity amongst interpreters regarding which texts might be clear and which dark.[5]

The clarity of justification by faith’s understanding of salvation over James’ ‘dark’ flawed attempts at ethical exhortation has been criticised by those involved in the so-called New Perspective on Paul who see Luther’s exegesis as reactionary to his context.[6] That there might be other approaches of engaging both James and Romans is hinted at in a playful way by Koyama,[7] who presents, in an imaginative dialogue, just how well James is received in Thailand. For James provides a welcome connection between Christianity and those influenced by Thai Buddhism. This is not to suggest that this reversal of the hermeneutical flow, from that which has dominated so much of Western theology, is better, but rather that an inner canon of the Pauline corpus or justification by faith is one possibility. Just as Luther’s contemporaries needed James’ exhortation to a living faith demonstrated in works alongside Paul’s soteriology, so too James’ audience, portrayed by Koyama, need to move on to hear Paul’s theology in order to temper James’ perspective on faith.

[1] Dunn, Canon, p.560.
[2] See, for example, Dunn, Canon, p.560 who cites specific examples.
[3] Wall, Scripture, p.540.
[4] See Abraham, Canon, p.129.
[5] See, for example, Vanhoozer, Text, p.171.
[6] See, for example, Sanders, Paul, passim and Wright, Paul, pp.3-20.
[7] Koyama, Water Buffalo, pp.118-124.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 1

“. . . [H]e that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” exclaims Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in what is arguably the author hinting at his antipathy towards the Enlightenment and consequent technological progress.[1] This saying has a peculiar resonance with the dangers inherent in some Modern approaches to the Bible discussed in this evaluation of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon. The direction of argument, in evaluating the necessity and usefulness of this notion, has been chosen to highlight the diversity of issues that this topic impinges on. Throughout, it will be seen that the notion has a particular bearing on the question of presuppositions in interpretive practice. Towards the end of these posts it will be argued that whilst the notion under discussion is useful in raising all sorts of questions it is not a helpful term in itself. Instead, these posts will argue for the need for clarity regarding the nature, use and value of presuppositions in biblical interpretation.

A Plurality of Meaning
In this section much of the argument is dependent on Goldingay’s distinction between a canon-within-the-canon’s (i) form and identity and (ii) nature and function.[2] Goldingay points out that the notion of kanon im kanon goes back to at least 1863.[3] He considers the idea of what he terms an inner canon[4] and lists some ten examples which are illustrative, rather than exhaustive, of the form and identity of the notion.[5]

It is worth noting that both the term inner canon and a canon-within-the-canon are used in ways that potentially obscure the different inner canons’ relationship with the Bible. Some inner canons, like specific books of the Bible, are usefully described as a canon-within-the-canon. Some inner canons are perhaps more usefully termed a canon-before-the-canon in the sense that something is assumed with a critical method as chronologically prior to the canonical material. An example of this is the search for the ipsissima vox of Jesus.[6] Some theological principles, such as justification, might be argued to be a canon-over-the-canon. It has been claimed that the work of Christ means that Jesus Christ is himself a canon–through-the-canon.[7]

For the moment our point is not to defend the usefulness of these variations on the notion, but rather to note the need for clarity in distinguishing carefully the variety of possible meaning. For reasons of brevity and presentation in much of the rest of these posts the term inner canon will be used.

In addition to variation in the form and identity of the inner canon, Goldingay identifies five different senses of the nature and function of an inner canon. In order of decreasing normative authority these are:[8]

  1. The real locus of truth (norm of absolute truth).
  2. The locus of deepest insight (norm of relative value).
  3. Those aspects of the canon that are still directly binding.
  4. Of organisational value for ordering theology.
  5. A part of the canon that has special importance and value to a specific community at a specific time.

Although some overlap exists between these five senses they help to illuminate the diverse ways with which the notion of an inner canon is used by different scholars.[9] They also point to the important dynamic of there being a significant variation in the strength of the normative role of the inner canon.

Three specific topics have been chosen to illustrate the possible variety of (i) the form and identity and (ii) the nature and function, of an inner canon. These three topics will be considered in the next two posts.

[1] Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954, p.272.
[2] Goldingay’s Old Testament and Models for Interpretation are the only English works known to the author that discuss at any length this helpful distinction.
[3] Goldingay, Old Testament, p.122.
[4] He uses the term inner canon as synonymous with the concept of a-canon-within-the-canon.
[5] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation, p.105. See also Goldingay, Old Testament, pp.122-125.
[6] See, for example, Jeremias, Theology, pp.29-37.
[7] Dunn, Canon, p.572.
[8] Goldingay, Old Testament, pp.125-127.
[9] Frequently the term is used with a bewildering variety of meanings with apparently little recognition that others use the term in quite different ways.

Psalmtweets 31-40

This is the 4th post of my latest round of Psalmtweets.

Psalm 31:
The Psalms show that suffering and illness are part of the life of faith.
But trust, hope & faith are the greater part.

Psalm 32:
The Psalms teach us about The Way.
Yahweh’s instruction is more than just knowledge.

Psalm 33:
The Psalter teaches us to sing new songs;
this is more about renewal than new words.

Psalm 34:
The Psalms tell us that the life of faith is an experience of God-tasting, God perceiving, feeling and God-talk.

Psalm 35:
The Psalms teach us, perhaps surprisingly, about the armour of God.

Psalm 36:
The Psalms map the loving-kindness of Yahweh.

Psalm 37:
The Psalms help us rest in God.
Resting in Yahweh is key, whatever is happening in our lives.

Psalm 38:
The life of faith is a challenge.
We can call upon the Lord to make haste to help us on the path.

Psalm 39:
The Psalms enable us, as creatures, to understand our frailty before our Creator.

Psalm 40:
The Psalter shows us that the right response to deliverance is the singing of new songs.

Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 6

The 6th and final post on Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics

Conclusion: Barth in our Context
Barth’s overall approach is consistent in that faith in the possibility of God’s working in Revelation validates the hermeneutic of trust which is central to his theological exegesis. The former legitimises the latter. Like Wright’s Critical Realism, Barth is honest about the role of presuppositions. For both it is the fact that there is a guiding story; of a God who sent his Son to a far country to bring back a people to himself. Barth’s key strength is his commitment to this story of a God who precedes anything that we might do to find him. It is fitting that Barth’s yes to God’s centrality in Revelation should in turn give a no to the legitimacy of those modern hermeneutical methods that are underpinned by presuppositions that are hostile to this possibility.

In some ways Barth’s approach to biblical interpretation anticipates some recent developments in hermeneutics. However, this is not to say that Barth simply affirms them but rather that his approach makes decisions about the issues underlying the methods and thus their legitimacy, or otherwise. Four examples must suffice:

  1. Barth’s understanding of Revelation naturally emphasising the unity of the Biblical books, against ever more sophisticated competing attempts to reconstruct their textual evolution and origin.
  2. In a similar way, Barth’s approach affirms the unity of the biblical corpus legitimising an approach which would in many ways be analogous to a variety of methods termed Canonical approaches.
  3. Barth recognises the role of the reader in bringing something to the text (see above) though he places objective truth with a God who reveals in freedom, contra radical reader-response approaches.
  4. Barth’s hermeneutic of trust stands in opposition to the underlying assumptions of all explicitly deconstructionist approaches to biblical texts.

We would do well to follow Barth’s central interpretative agenda, in making ‘an attempt to read the Bible differently . . . more in accordance with its subject-matter, content, and substance, focusing with more attention and love upon the meaning of the Bible itself’.[1] Such a call to the task of biblical interpretation sounds like a voice calling in the wilderness of a plethora of rival hermeneutical approaches. Yet Barth’s decision as to the necessity of committed, rather than neutral, knowledge of the Bible gives confidence in the possibility of a straight path in this wilderness.


[1] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.277.


Full Bibliography
Baillie, John, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought, London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translator: G. W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975.

Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1970.

Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, II/1: The Doctrine of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, H. Knight and J. L. M. Harie, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1964.

Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV/3ii: The Doctrine of Creation, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: Harold Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid and R. H. Fuller, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968.

Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV/4: The Doctrine of Reconciliation – Baptism as the Foundation of the Christian Life, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translator:  G. W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969.

Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edition, Translator: Hoskyns, E. C., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Barth, Karl, ‘The Strange New World Within the Bible’, pp.28-50 in The Word of God and the Word of Man, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1928.

Barth, Karl, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24, editor: Ritschl, D., translator: Bromiley, G. W., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

Barth, Karl, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, new edition, London: SCM Press, 2001.

Biggar, Nigel, ‘Barth’s Trinitarian Ethic’, pp.212-227 in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, editor: John Webster, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Busch, Eberhard, The Great Passion: An introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Colwell, Promise and Presence: An exploration of sacramental theology, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2005.

Fackre, Gabriel, ‘Revelation’, pp.1-25 in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and divergences, editor: Sung Wook Chung, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Continuum, 2004.

Gorringe, Timothy J., Against Hegemony: Christian theology in context, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gunton, Colin E., A Brief Theology of Revelation: The 1993 Warfield Lectures, London: T&T Clark, 1995.

Gunton, Colin E., Becoming and Being: The doctrine of God in Charles Hartshorne and Karl Barth, new edition, London: SCM Press, 2001.

Gunton, Colin, E., The Barth Lectures, edited: Brazier, P. H., London: T&T Clark International, 2007.

Gunton, Colin E., Holmes, Stephen R. and Rae, Murray A. (editors), The Practice of Theology: A reader, London: SCM Press, 2001.

Hart, Trevor, ‘Revelation’, pp.37-56 in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, editor: John Webster, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hunsinger, George, ‘The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit’, pp.177-194 in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, editor: John Webster, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Henry, Carl F. H., God, Revelation and Authority: Volume 2: God who speaks and shows part 1, Waco: Word, 1976.

Henry, Carl F. H., God, Revelation and Authority: Volume 4: God who speaks and shows part 3, Waco: Word, 1979.

McCormack, Bruce L., Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its genesis and development 1909-1936, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Neill, Stephen C. and Wright, Nicholas T., The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986, new edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Osborne, Grant R., The Hermeneutical Spiral: A comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation, Downers Grove: IVP, 1991.

Torrance, Thomas F., Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical theologian, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990.

Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 5

The 5th of six posts on Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics

The Holy Spirit and Biblical Interpretation
Barth has frequently been accused of having a deficient pneumatology. For example, Williams laments what he sees as the undeveloped pneumatology of Barth in a broad sense, as well as in particular in God’s mediation to his creatures.[1] Colwell makes a similar point and attributes this to the subordination of the Spirit due to Barth’s Christocentrism.[2] Just how prevalent these criticisms of Barth’s pneumatology are, is demonstrated by Busch’s point of departure in his exploration of Barth on this subject; he starts with the question: ‘Forgetting the Spirit?’[3] In two ways he demonstrates that many of Barth’s critics are unfair, first, given Barth’s necessary caution given the possibility of his being misunderstood in other ways and, second, the fact that the Church Dogmatics never reached the fifth volume in which there would have been a fuller place for pneumatology.[4]

Whether or not Busch is judged to have fully deflected criticism from Barth’s wider pneumatology, it is the case that Barth allows for a greater role for the Spirit in biblical interpretation than most contemporary hermeneutical approaches.

Two works can be cited as illustrative of this all but ubiquitous trend. Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral, which is a standard modern text on biblical interpretation, makes little of the Spirit’s role in hermeneutics. Wright’s seminal proposal of Critical Realism as a tool for taking seriously the Bible’s literary, historical and theological nature in The New Testament and the People of God also makes little reference to the work of the Spirit. In many other respects Wright’s work is an exemplar of the constructive dialogue necessary to integrate the diverse disciplines necessary for biblical interpretation.

For the modern interpreter, despite claims to the contrary, Barth’s understanding of the role of the Spirit in biblical interpretation is commendable in that there is a central role for the Spirit.[5] Where perhaps it fails is with its lack of any mechanistic clarity.

The Doctrine of Revelation and the Nature Exegesis
A way forward in understanding why (a) Barth received criticism from such diverse sources, and (b) refused to engage in dialogue about hermeneutics, is to note the possible confusion of epistemological matters with practical hermeneutics (or exegesis).

Much discussion of hermeneutics, in particular Barth’s hermeneutics, is vitiated by the often unacknowledged existence of two separate, but closely related matters, which often become confused. As noted above, Osborne, at the outset of The Hermeneutical Spiral distinguishes between two definitions of hermeneutics, the ‘act of appropriation’ and the principles of interpretation. For Barth specifically these two categories are his doctrine of Revelation and his theological exegesis respectively.

The separation, yet relationship, between these two areas for Barth is usefully illustrated (but not fully encapsulated) in Figure 1.

Barth Hermeneutics

Figure 1 A schematic of Barth’s hermeneutics.

The small arrows in figure 1 represent the practical process, i.e. what can be termed exegesis, which for Barth is about using a variety of methods and paying attention to the subject matter, context and substance of the Bible. Barth’s biblical interpretation pays attention to the three, oft cited, foci of the biblical texts.[6] Barth gives a place to the reader ‘in front of the text’, the text itself and the author ‘behind the text’. This process is transformed by his doctrine of Revelation. This is essentially the acknowledgment that God himself is behind the text.[7] This is for Barth, both a necessary presupposition and an act of God himself. The large arrow represents this act of appropriation, i.e. Revelation, rather than just information.

Once the distinction between these two is noted some of the often puzzling diversity of views of Barth’s approach to the Bible makes more sense, for example:

  1. As noted above it is frequently said that Barth’s practice of hermeneutics treats the Bible as authoritative and yet he denies the reality of verbal inspiration. His theological exegesis demands careful meticulous work, yet his understanding of the necessity of God’s action in the revelatory event does not require verbal inspiration.
  2. Barth’s refusal to discuss hermeneutics also makes more sense in the light of these two dynamics. The doctrine of Revelation, and thus what Barth sees as hermeneutics, is non-negotiable because of Barth’s commitment to God’s freedom. For Barth the other dynamic of theological exegesis is simply not hermeneutics.[8]
  3. In very simple terms it also explains why Barth makes the otherwise strange claim that exegesis must precede hermeneutics.[9]
  4. Barth’s sometimes ambivalent relationship to the historical critical method is also consistent in this sense. At one level he is happy to affirm the ‘venerable doctrine of inspiration’[10] because this reflects God’s centrality to the act of Revelation. He is also happy to make use of the critical tools available to carry out theological exegesis (provided care is taken regarding their presuppositions).

The 6th and final post (with full bibliograophic information) is coming soon.

[1] Williams, Christian Theology, p.107f.
[2] Colwell, Promise, p.40.
[3] Busch, Passion, pp.40-44.
[4] Hunsinger, Mediator, p.178 (including note 2) makes a similar point about the unfinished and therefore unbalanced nature of the Church Dogmatics.
[5] Contra Colwell, Promise, p.40 whose claim that Barth teaches unmediated immediacy is arguably a reading back of elements of the very late CD IV/4.
[6] See Turner and Green, New Testament, pp.4-5.
[7] This idea is the opening element in Barth, New World, pp.28-32.
[8] This is one rather central point on which Burnett, Theological Exegesis, is unclear.
[9] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.13ff. for the centrality of this claim in Barth.
[10] Barth, Romans, p.1.

Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 4

This is the 4th of six posts on Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics.

The Diversity of Barth’s Critics
Many of Barth’s German Protestant contemporaries saw a variety of problems with Barth’s exegetical and interpretative approach shown in his Romans commentary.[1] These included the accusation of his being a Biblicist[2], having a worrying dependence on the Spirit[3] and his rejection of historical criticism.[4] In contrast American Evangelicals, in particular, have been concerned about opposing tendencies in Barth’s biblical interpretation: concerns regarding Barth’s denial of biblical inerrancy and non-verbal view of Revelation,[5] a failure to give enough of a place to the Spirit’s work in inspiration[6] and too great a scepticism about the factuality of Biblical events[7]. It is interesting to note such diversity of criticism and it is perhaps little wonder that Barth might feel as one on the ‘margins’.[8]

In evaluating Barth’s approach to biblical interpretation three loci will be considered: (i) the Bible’s nature, (ii) the role of the Spirit in interpretation and (iii) the choice of critical approaches.

The Nature of Scripture
Though he troubled his Liberal critics on the publication of his Romans commentary by the statement in the preface favouring inspiration over the historical critical method (see above), Barth never formulated a clear concise statement of the doctrine of inspiration. This has meant that many Evangelicals are wary of his commitment to what might be termed the authority of Scripture. However, as is frequently noted, Barth’s practice in the Church Dogmatics retrieves his reputation as a theologian who is wholly committed to the Bible and biblical interpretation.[9] Vanhoozer also points out there is no modern theologian who makes a more thorough use of Scripture as authoritative for theology than Barth.[10]

Vanhoozer helpfully examines more than fifty years of Evangelical response to Barth’s use of the Bible. He goes a long way to showing that Barth has all too often been misunderstood. Despite this conclusion there remain issues regarding Barth’s understanding of the basis in fact of some historical biblical events as his insistence on Revelation being entirely event rather than propositional.[11] This is a necessary consequence of Barth’s threefold view of the Word of God.

Barth’s three forms of the Word of God are sequential in the sense that the preached message points to the written words which, in turn, point to the original revelatory events. The Christ Event is an objective Revelation.[12] Some have taken this to mean that Barth’s Revelation is signs of signs of signs (to paraphrase Work [13]). This is not the case, anymore than the mission of Father, Son and Spirit, makes the two sent persons of the trinity any less God than the Father. Although it might be fair to concede that Barth is vague regarding what happens in the humanly subjective revelatory event that occurs when God speaks through the Bible by the work of the Spirit[14], this is direct access to the objective revelation in Christ.[15] In Barth’s terms the Bible becomes this objective revelation. This could not be otherwise for Barth, as he sees Revelation as reconciliation.[16]

For the modern interpreter, whatever reservations there might be about the detail of Barth’s biblical ontology, he represents a firm commitment to the centrality of the Bible to theology. In fact, he exhibits an unfashionable refusal to separate biblical and systematic theology typifies Barth’s view of the Bible. Such an approach is self-consistent with faith in a God who providentially provides witnesses to himself.

Part 5 coming soon.

[1] Neill and Wright, New Testament, p.222 do not exaggerate when they say this was half the scholars in Germany!
[2] Barth was happy to be identified as such, provided he could define the term, see Romans, p.11. See also Watson, Text, p.231 regarding this label.
[3] See, for example, Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.56ff.
[4] See Barth, Romans, p.6.
[5] See, for example, Henry, Revelation IV, pp.196-200 and Henry, Revelation II, p.12 respectively.
[6] See, for example, Fackre, Revelation, p.21.
[7] See, for example, Henry, Revelation II, pp.289ff. for one view on Barth’s distinction between Historie and Geschichte.
[8] See CD IV/4, p.xii.
[9] So Vanhoozer, Book, p.44. See also Fackre, Revelation, p.21.
[10] See, for example, Vanhoozer, Book, p.44.
[11] Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.195 makes a very helpful contribution re illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.
[12] This point is helpfully presented by Fackre, Revelation, p.3.
[13] See Work, Living, p.72.
[14] Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.130, 151. However, might it not be presumptuous to say too much about what is after all the heart of the mystery of God dealing with man?
[15] Colwell, Promise, p.99, n.31 makes this point.
[16] See Fackre, Revelation, p.3 and Hunsinger, Mediator, p.178.

Theologian of the Month: Gustavo Gutiérrez

The Idea
This month in my church (New Life Baptist Church, Guildford) I introduced ‘Theologian of the Month’. This will be a regular feature of our life together as an experiment for a few months. It is hoped that it will help members of all ages think about their personal faith as well as learn something the world Church or Church history. This month we launched it as part of an all-age part of the service. This included seeing Gustavo Gutiérrez as a spoon character.

Gutierrez July 2015

We also invited two young members of the church to the front to see if they agreed with some of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s beliefs. During the discussion that resulted we emphasised that we are all theologians and that not all theologians are deceased.

In this week’s church bulletin we followed this up a little more information. See below.

Who is Gustavo Gutiérrez?
Gustavo Gutiérrez was born in Lima, Peru on the 8th June 1928. He experienced socio-economic hardship in his childhood. His father had a subsistence level income and the young Gustavo suffered discrimination because of his mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. He was also bed-ridden for six years as a result of osteomyelitis.

He decided to become a Dominican priest in 1950. His education, which followed this decision, was a broad one; including psychology, philosophy and theology. He benefited from studying in some prestigious European institutions from 1951 to 1959 including the Catholic University of Leuven and the Catholic University of Lyon.

On his return to Lima in 1959 he consistently demonstrated a commitment to the poor, living in Rímac one of the poorest parts of Lima. He founded an Institute in 1974 which aims to promote social justice for the marginalised in Peru.

Gutiérrez is often known as the father of Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology is a movement which has challenged the established Church regarding its frequent tolerance and acceptance of the gulf between rich and poor. In particular, proponents of Liberation Theology argue that the Church should challenge social structures which continually marginalise and disadvantage the poor. The movement started in Latin America but has found support in many contexts. Responses to the movement have been mixed. On the one hand it has been recognised that the organised Church has often been complicit in social injustice, despite Scripture’s strong opposition to such injustice. Some proponents of Liberation Theology, however, identify with Communism. This brings with it the dangers of supporting political revolution, or at least questions as to how the gospel can fit with an atheistic ideology.

Gutiérrez’s two most accessible books are A Theology of Liberation (1973) and We Drink from Our Own Wells (1984). I recommend these books, not because I, or you, will agree with everything written there. Rather, in reading his work you will be challenged to come to your own richer appreciation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For an evaluation of his theology and spirituality, see psaltermark.wordpress.com.

The Future
I would love to hear from anyone else who has tried something similar. Next month I am planning to choose Karl Barth and the month after Paul Gooder.