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Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 1

Introduction: Barth in his Context
It has been claimed that Gadamer said more than he realised when he suggested that ‘despite all his disaffection for methodological reflection, Barth’s Romans is a kind of hermeneutical manifesto’.[1] Precisely what he meant must remain open as he never elaborated on this in his lifetime.[2] During the course of these posts, two aspects of Gadamer’s statement will be explored. Firstly, the reason and nature of Barth’s disaffection for discussing hermeneutical method, which has often meant his marginalisation in our age in which so much is being said about hermeneutics. Secondly, the truth of Gadamer’s statement about the radical nature of Barth’s hermeneutics in his Romans commentary (and beyond) will be considered. However, before either of these matters can be adequately explored it is necessary to place Barth in his context lest the nature of his hermeneutical break with his age is missed or distorted.

It is a truism that all theologians need to be understood in the light of their historical context. Some have suggested that with Barth we should go further and see him as a contextual theologian.[3] What is clear is that Barth confronted his Enlightenment context head on.  For example, with regard to its claim for the necessity of presuppositionless theology and exegesis:

“There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.”[4]

Nevertheless Webster points out that: ‘If he dismantled modern Protestant theology as it developed in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he did so from the inside.’[5]

The Impact of the Enlightenment on the Doctrine of Revelation
The Protestant theology that Barth challenged had presuppositions that originated with the Enlightenment and Romanticism (a response to the former). These two ‘movements’ had an impact on the conception of, what had for some sixteen centuries of church history been essentially the unchallenged doctrine of Revelation.[6] Baillie explains this doctrine by pointing out that an intelligent medieval schoolboy would have been able to explain that there were two sources of information about God: rational reflection and Revelation.[7] Such a view was explained by Aquinas elegantly as an ascent by the use of reason (reflecting on creation) and descent (as revelation of divine truth from above).[8]

This binary epistemology was challenged soon after the Reformation. In short, as the Enlightenment developed, reason came to the fore at the expense of Revelation. It was Kant who was to take a final step in a trajectory favouring reason and demeaning Revelation, when he concluded that neither Reason nor Revelation can tell as about God.[9] Barth commends Kant for his consistency in following the trajectory to its logical conclusion, and living this out practically as he avoided involvement with institutional faith in a culture where Church was so much a part of life.[10]

Gunton helpfully divides the choices of German Protestantism post-Kant into three rival frameworks: (i) fundamentally Kantian, (ii) extensions to Kant, (iii) alternatives to Kant.[11] Ritschl, for example, essentially followed Kant’s conclusions. In agreeing with Kant, that neither reason or Revelation are options to find out about God, he adopted an historical approach to the life of Jesus in an attempt to recover Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching. The second response to Kant is typified in Schleiermacher, who saw Kant’s ‘reducing life to only physics and ethics’[12] as a misrepresentation of the very nature of human beings. For Schleirmacher religious feeling, famously termed a ‘feeling of utter dependence’,[13] is the vital link which brings physics and ethics together. In this way Schleiermacher typifies Romanticism’s reaction to Enlightenment intellectualism. The third response, which can be represented by Hegel, attempted to integrate everything by reason.[14]

In short, and in the light of these three categories, Barth’s doctrine of Revelation is an alternative to Hegel, which opposes Schleiermacher but takes Kant seriously. Barth accepts Kant’s point that theology is about Revelation but rejects Kant’s thoroughgoing scepticism about the possibility of Revelation.[15] Though importantly Barth is truly post-Kant, there is no going back to a pre-critical understanding of Revelation.

Part 2 will follow shortly.

[1] So Vanhoozer, Book, p.53 reflecting on Gadamer, Truth and Method, p.510.
[2] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.4.
[3] So Gorringe, Hegemony, pp.16-19 who argues that Barth had such a self-understanding.
[4] Barth CD I/2, p.469. See also CD IV/3.ii, p.821.
[5] Webster, Barth, p.15.
[6] Hart, Revelation, p.37 defines revealed as ‘something disclosed or given to be known to someone which apart from the act of revealing would remain hidden, disguised or unknown’. Throughout this essay Revelation follows this definition, where something is being revealed about and/or by God, hence the capitalisation.
[7] Baillie, Revelation, p.3.
[8] Baillie, Revelation, p.4.
[9] See, for example, Gunton, Barth, p.54.
[10] Barth, Nineteenth Century, pp.253-254.
[11] Gunton, Barth, pp.13-17.
[12] Gunton, Barth, p.15.
[13] See, for example, Barth, Schleiermacher, p.253 and Barth CD II/1, p.270.
[14] So Gunton, Barth, pp.16-17.
[15] So Gunton, Barth, p.51. See Barth, Nineteenth Century, pp.252-298.

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About Me

This blog’s central aim is to explore all aspects of how the Psalter (the biblical psalms) functions as Scripture today.

To this end it will also include book reviews on the Book of Psalms and related topics.

Some posts will reflect more broadly on biblical interpretation or hermeneutics.

If you like what you see here and want to arrange for me to give a lecture, run a teaching event or a short retreat based around The Psalms then contact me so we can discuss how this might work.

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