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.

Author: PsalterMark

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

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