Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 3

Barth’s Disdain for Discussing Hermeneutics
Some have dismissed Barth’s biblical ontology and gone no further. A central reason why Barth’s hermeneutics are poorly understood, or dismissed without any engagement, is that he made strenuous efforts to avoid discussing hermeneutics.[1] It is not, as some have claimed, that he makes ad hoc hermeneutical decisions that suit the moment;[2] at the outset we noted that as great a systematic thinker as Gadamer recognised Barth’s hermeneutical methodology as a coherent bombshell. It is rather that Barth’s hermeneutics give such centrality for the encounter with God, made possible by the Bible, that Barth sees any prolegomena that does other than start with the very being of God as disingenuous to the one God himself.[3]

At the heart of the understanding of Barth’s hermeneutics is the definition of hermeneutics itself. As Osborne points out there are two poles of meaning to ‘hermeneutics’. It can mean the principles of interpretation or ‘the act of appropriating a text’s “meaning” for one’s own situation’.[4] Much of the contemporary debate is focused on principles, whereas for Barth the centrality of the Act was more dominant. Given the priority of God in the Act of Revelation, Barth does not see fit to discuss or analyse this dynamic of hermeneutics.

Barth’s reaction to the marginalisation of God in Enlightenment and Romanticism influenced hermeneutics was to start with God as the only a priori. This led to ongoing criticism and misunderstanding.[5] Burnett provides a compelling guide to how these misunderstandings might have been less of an issue if Barth had published what remained draft prefaces to his Romans commentary.[6] He shows convincingly that Barth was very much aware of his hermeneutical approach (in terms of principles for interpretation) and how the unpublished prefaces make sense of what are only hints of his hermeneutics in published work of the time.

Barth’s principled opposition to Enlightenment-influenced hermeneutics continued throughout his life. Barth stubbornly resisted constant invitations to debate and discuss hermeneutical issues with contemporary theologians, for example, from those in the New Hermeneutic movement.[7]

Barth and the Historical Critical Method
Despite Barth’s unwillingness to engage in direct discussion of hermeneutics, key aspects of his hermeneutics are clear. His reaction to the Enlightenment’s effect on theology led to a challenge to the primacy of the historical critical method. In the preface to the first edition of his Romans commentary he clearly challenges those that give hegemony to the historical critical method, stating that: ‘. . . were I driven to choose between it [i.e. the historical critical method] and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification’.[8] This statement drew criticism from a host of scholars, such was the gulf between what Barth was seen to be advocating and those in the academy pursuing the diverse methods that constitute the historical critical method; though later in the Romans preface he says that he is no enemy of the historical critical method.[9]

For Barth the danger of wholesale adoption of the historical critical method was the adoption of the inherent presuppositions carried with it. The historical critical method calls for objectivity, for the reader to be impartial in deciding on a possible interpretation. Barth fundamentally opposes the possibility of such impartiality and does so from his 1915 turning point through to his death. For Barth there is the necessity of ‘reading in’ and ‘reading out’ of the Bible. This is not to be confused with more recent reader-response hermeneutics but rather the recognition that faith itself must be a hermeneutical key. In his words:

“The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall find in it as much as we seek and no more; high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek –nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek.”[10]

This is precisely why for Barth ‘there is no possibility of dogmatics at all outside the Church.’[11] Thus he halted his first dogmatics, the Christian Dogmatics (in 1927), in favour of the Church Dogmatics (first volume 1932). In this way Barth, it can be argued, stands in a trajectory of theologians who stress the necessity of a faith commitment for theological reflection: Gregory of Nazianus, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin and Schleiermacher.[12]

Barth was hostile to what might be termed anthropological starting points for hermeneutics. For example, Schleiermacher is famous for making use of empathy in his hermeneutics. A casual reading of Barth’s Romans preface might be taken to indicate Barth’s agreement with this ethos in that he wants to ‘become the author’.[13] Elsewhere, however, Barth denies the validity of an empathetic approach, instead he proposes the necessity to love and trust the author as a bridge to understanding the text.[14] Barth reverses the hermeneutic of suspicion into ‘one of trust’![15] Schleiermacher is famous for the notion that it is possible to understand an author better than he understood himself.[16] Barth’s aim is slightly less positivistic especially when some hyperbole is rightly recognised in his claim of becoming the author. This identification with the author is similar to Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’[17] which might be part of the explanation for Gadamer’s statement which was the point of departure for this essay.

For Barth the subject matter, context and substance of the Bible fundamentally dictate how it is to be handled.[18] Burnett helpful explores these three interrelated terms,[19] arguing that the original three German terms are, for Barth, effectively technical terms (Sachlicher, Inhaltlicher, Wesentlicher).[20] In short, recognition of the Bible as central to a loving God’s revelatory and redemptive plan speaks against historical criticism’s tendency to fragment the Bible.

Part 4 coming soon


[1] See, for example, Webster, Word, p.51.
[2] See, for example, Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.5, who cites an example.
[3] See Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.128 for the link between a doctrine of Scripture and a doctrine of God. See Gunton, Becoming, pp.127ff. for a concise exploration of the centrality of this theme in Barth.
[4] Osborne, Spiral, p.366.
[5] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.14-23.
[6] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, passim.
[7] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.33f.
[8] Barth, Romans, p.1.
[9] Barth, Romans, p.9
[10] Barth, New World, p.32.
[11] See CD I/1, p.17.
[12] See Gunton et al, Theology, pp.318-350 where Francis Watson and Robert Jenson are suggested as later thinkers in this trajectory.
[13] From the preface to the second edition, Barth, Romans, p.8.
[14] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.208ff.
[15] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.193.
[16] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.150-153.
[17] Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp.305ff.
[18] See Vanhoozer, First Theology, pp.215-216 for key comments on how form and matter are inseparable and also p.273 on so-called Anselmian hermeneutics, where the object dictates how it should be known.
[19] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.65-93. He argues that these three together represent ‘Karl Barth’s most important hermeneutical principle’, p.65.
[20] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.65-94.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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