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Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 2

Barth’s Break with Liberalism as Hermeneutical in Nature
Karl Barth’s break with the prevailing Liberal Protestantism of his ecclesial and educational context has been described as ‘the most important event that has occurred in theology in over two hundred years’.[1] Though some might question the singular magnitude of this assessment there is no disputing the scale of the personal shift made by Barth in 1915.[2] The factors that came together to effect this change in Barth’s thinking are numerous and complex in their biographical detail. However, three can helpfully be identified as central:

  1. A growing disenchantment with the ‘liberal gospel’ and in particular the efficacy of it when preached in his pastoral context.[3]
  2. The fact that the vast majority of both his theological teachers and other German academic theologians signed a letter in support of the war policy of the Kaiser.[4]
  3. The experience of God speaking as he studied Romans with his friend Thurneysen.[5]

For the purpose of this post it is important to emphasise that Barth’s change of theological direction was thoroughly hermeneutical in nature. As Gunton points out, the first two factors above are consequential on the failure of the historical critical method[6] to achieve unilaterally what its exponents had promised for ethics.[7] This is of central importance for Barth because he, firmly and consistently, did not separate theology from ethics.[8] The third point is related to the ‘discovery’ of the ‘venerable doctrine of Inspiration’,[9] which fundamentally challenged Barth’s ontology of the Bible and his epistemological framework. Barth put down his change of theological trajectory to a rediscovery of ‘the strange new world within the Bible’.[10]

Barth’s Trinitarian Schema of the Word of God
Barth’s doctrine of Revelation is famously Trinitarian in character, with the three forms of the Word of God standing at its heart:

  1. The Word of God preached.
  2. The Word of God written.
  3. The Word of God revealed.

This Trinitarian structure is based, in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, on an analogy with the Trinity[11] as well as an analogy with Anselm’s ‘three levels of rationality’[12]. It is easy to simplify Barth’s headline categories and remake them in a different sense to that intended by Barth. However, the fact that Barth works through this schema in some 36 pages in CD I/1 with a recapitulation and development in reverse order in some 884 pages in CD I/2 should warn against any hasty appropriation.

The Bible in Barth’s Schema of Revelation
Despite the dangers of abstracting a short summary of Barth’s view of the Bible this must be attempted before Barth’s biblical hermeneutics can be considered. Barth’s theology is commonly referred to as being dialectical. One aspect of Barth’s dialectical theology is the centrality (and consequences of) the huge gulf[13] between God and his creature, man[14]. The central consequence of this for Barth is that God is free and thus no understanding of the Bible is possible which constrains God.[15] The very nature of Revelation is that God speaks to man through an act.[16] It is God who ‘reveals Himself through Himself’.[17] Thus for Barth the Bible in itself is not Revelation in any direct ontological sense; God must act, there must be an event in which God, by his Spirit, reveals through the written word.[18] This means that Barth is hostile to the possibility of propositional truth being Revelation. Barth is thorough in seeing Revelation as about relationship between God and man, rather than information about God.[19]

Some sections of the Church have questioned Barth’s denial of verbal inerrancy.[20] For Barth, as much as the biblical authors are God’s chosen witnesses, their writings are still human and therefore subject to error.[21] Barth holds this in tension with the Bible as the key vehicle for Revelation from (in fact of) God.[22]

Gunton captures Barth’s doctrine helpfully:

“In scripture God’s event becomes God’s Word through human words. The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that he causes it to be God’s Word. Scripture is therefore, to Barth, a human word and can remain a human word unless God actually makes it a divine word.”[23]

 Part 3 coming soon.

[1] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.1.
[2] In this post McCormack’s analysis of Barth’s theological evolution will be assumed, i.e. that Barth had one break, in 1915, and then a gradual process of working through the theological consequences of this event. This is against von Balthasar’s ‘two break’ paradigm, see McCormack, Dialectical Theology, pp.1-14.
[3] See, for example, Torrance, Karl Barth, p.3 and Barth, Romans, p.9.
[4] See Barth, Schleiermacher, pp.263-264.
[5] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.35 and Torrance, Karl Barth, p.6.
[6] The term ‘historical critical method’ is used herein in a similar manner to that of, for example, Gunton, Revelation, p.4 and Watson, Text, p.3, as a singular concept embracing a plurality of methods.
[7] Gunton, Barth, p.24.
[8] See, for example, Biggar, Trinitarian Ethic, p.223.
[9] Barth, Romans, p.1.
[10] Watson, Bible, p.57.
[11] See CD I/1, p.121. See also CD I/1, pp.333-347.
[12] So Gunton, Barth, p.72.
[13] Barth hints at the centrality of this for his hermeneutics in the second preface to his Romans commentary, see Barth, Romans, p.10.
[14] The noun ‘man’ is used throughout as designating male and female as in Genesis 1:27, NIV.
[15] See, for example, Gunton, Becoming, pp.194-199.
[16] CD I/1, pp.125-186.
[17] CD I/1, p.296.
[18] CD I/1, pp.448-489.
[19] See Vanhoozer, for example, First Theology, p.134.
[20] Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.133 helpfully contrasts Barth’s “indirect identity thesis” with Warfield’s “direct identity thesis”.
[21] See CD I/2, p.501 for Barth’s ‘two natures’ of the Bible.
[22] Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.136-137.
[23] Gunton, Barth, p.73.

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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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