Psalm 32: The Second Penitential Psalm Today

This is the second of seven posts that aim to show how the Penitential Psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—have been read by interpreters such as Augustine, Cassiodorus, Luther and Calvin. One reason for doing this is the conviction that we can learn from past interpretations as we compare them with modern readings. These posts will also allow interpreters to speak for themselves by means of some carefully chosen examples of their work. In this post the value of prosopological exegesis is the specific focus. This is a rather grand term for reading a psalm by mapping out the speaker and audience for the various sections of a psalm. The term prosopological is derived from the Greek prosopa meaning characters.

Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) was fond of prosopological exegesis. In his commentary on all 150 psalms, he has a specific introductory section for each and every psalm that considers the speakers of the psalm. His answers invariably inform his subsequent verse by verse commentary. In the quotation from his Explanation of the Psalms below I have added modern versification in square brackets as well as a definition. This is how he reads Psalm 32:

In the first section of the psalm [vv.1–4] the penitent speaks, openly admitting his sin and declaring that the punishment served on him is deserved, for he thought that his baneful deeds should be kept hidden. In this section, both exordium [a Latin term in rhetoric for a formal introductory statement] and narration are included. In the second part [v.5] there is nothing but correction, for since he has condemned himself by his own admission he believes that the Lord must spare him. In the third part [vv.6–7] the psalmist praises the blessings of repentance, and maintains that even the saints in this world entreat the Lord. He attests that his refuge lies justly in Him, where the words of the penitent likewise find their goal. In the fourth part [vv.8–11] the Lord Christ replies to his words, and promises to invest with mercy those who hope in Him, so that none may believe that the purity of the suppliant is being disregarded through any indifference. These four sections are separated by diapsalms lying between them. Clearly we must take these sections one by one. [1]

The term diapsalms refers to the Hebrew word rendered Selah in the NRSV and many other modern English translations and their supposed place in marking out transitions within some psalms. Whilst the term is present at key breaks in some psalms, in Psalm 32 this function is more questionable. The position of the three occurrences of Selah has clearly influenced Cassiodorus’ breaks between what he terms parts one, two and three. To the modern interpreter the identification of Christ as the recipient of the words of vv.1–7, voiced by the psalmist as a prayer, and his words of reply in vv.8–11 might seem anachronistic. And, of course, this cannot have been the initial intention of the human author and editors—a yardstick central to modern approaches to the Old Testament. The possibility of Christ’s involvement in this psalm as hearer and speaker is even more alien when matters such as the situation in life and/or cultic use of the psalm are brought to the interpretive table. Yet, not only is this a dominant mode of pre-critical reading it is also elegant and self-consistent in the light of the Christology of the Great Tradition. The reader is strongly encouraged to pause and approach the psalm in this manner to experience this reading.

The issue of what we take to the Bible by way of presuppositions is a vexed question. Karl Barth expressed this matter colourfully and memorably in his remarkable essay The Strange New World within the Bible:

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always 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. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. [2]

John Calvin (1509–1564), writing almost a millennium after Cassiodorus, identifies very different voices in Psalm 32. No longer is the speaker abstracted as the psalmist or the penitent, but King David emerges from the background to the fore. This is evident as Calvin introduces his exegesis of Psalm 32:

David having largely and painfully experienced what a miserable thing it is to feel God’s hand heavy on account of sin, exclaims that the highest and best part of the happy life consists in this, that God forgives a man’s guilt, and receives him graciously into his favor. After giving thanks for pardon obtained, he invites others to fellowship with him in his happiness, showing, by his own example, the means by which this may be obtained. [3]

Throughout Calvin’s subsequent verse by verse commentary David is the speaker of the whole psalm. He is referred to by name repeatedly as well as being given the epithet of prophet. This is true of the second half (vv.8–11)—whereas Cassiodorus identifies the speaker as Christ, for Calvin the instruction found in these latter verses is from David as he addresses the faithful.

Other notable commentators on this psalm lack the focus on who is speaking. This is the case with Augustine (354–430) who does not mention David by name other than when explaining the psalm’s Davidic title. Throughout Augustine’s account the author of the psalm is the psalmist. This is of course not to say that Augustine would not have identified David as the psalmist, but rather the person of David is not central in his exegesis. Closer to Calvin’s time, John Fisher (1469–1535) also pays little attention to prosopological exegesis. He does allude on occasion to David as the author via his designation of him as the prophet. His concern, however, is that this psalm teaches doctrine and obedience to it, in particular the practice of penance. For example he argues that:

This psalm is fittingly and not unworthily called a penitential psalm, because penance is here so carefully treated and spoken of. First, the prophet praises those whose sis are utterly removed by penance, and, on the other side, he shows the wretchedness of those who forsake penance. He also shows the reason for and the manner of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are the three parts of penance. First, he praises greatly the virtue of contrition, especially where these is a full purpose of confession. He also teaches the necessity of contrition and shows the impediments to it, with the proper remedies. Next, he comforts and lifts up those who are weak in soul. He calls to those who are out of the right way for coming into bliss and in a manner threatens them. He promises damnation to those who refuse penance; to those who do penance, forgiveness; to those who go forward and profit in it, joy; and lastly, he promises eternal glory to those who are perfect. This holy prophet goes briefly into all of these points in the order we have just declared to you. [4]

Should we be concerned with the rival voices behind this psalm? For some interpreters this is a key to their exegesis and for others such concerns are peripheral. Does it matter whether we read parts of Psalm 32 as voiced by an anonymous penitent to Christ or a confession from the very lips of David? Does it make a difference whether the latter verses are spoken by Christ or they are a prayer of King David to the faithful of his day? Is it appropriate to read later events into the psalm, such as knowledge of the person of Christ or the penitential practices that evolved in the medieval period? Before attempting to answer these questions we will consider a modern view of the voices that lie behind this psalm.

Susan Gillingham [5] focuses largely on the audience for each of four sections as she suggests the following:

vv.1–2 Instruction in the third person to the community
vv.3–7 God addressed in light of vv.1–2
vv.8–9 God speaks to the psalmist
vv.10–11 The community addressed again (third then second person)

No doubt the reader of this post will already have found which interpreter/s they most warm to, and which seem more distant. We all have a complex array of presuppositions we bring to the text as Barth reminded us above. Listening to diverse interpreters can enable us to see and test our presuppositions. Gillingham [6] argues, by building on the work of H. J. Levine, that there is something positively transformative about recognising that the psalms are at their very heart performative. The identification of speakers and audiences for the various parts of a psalm can enable this performative dynamic in individual and corporate worship. The Psalms transformative potential is perhaps at its most profound when confession is part of the nature of a psalm. This is arguably one of the reasons behind the generative success of the Penitential Psalms.

If we embrace this transformative potential then the prosopological approach is, I think, incredibly valuable. A conscious process of perceiving which words are ours and which are spoken to us can open familiar psalms with a valuable freshness and vitality. It is a secondary matter as to how we fit David, an anonymous author, editors, or even Christ’s voice into such readings. In recognising the performative nature of Psalm 32, we will find ourselves before the God of David who is the God of Lord Jesus Christ, confessing our blessings before a merciful God. As we proceed we will not only remember our blessings but examine how much of the untamed mule lies within. Such instruction is not dusty legalism this is life-giving dialogue of creature with Creator.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2, NRSV)

In light of such blessing let us not keep silent.

References

  1. Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990) p.305.
  2. Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, edited and translated by Douglas Horton (Pilgrim Press, 1928) p.32.
  3. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.391.
  4. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), p.25.
  5. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) pp.195–196.
  6. Susan Gillingham, The Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume 2: Psalms 1–72 (Wiley, 2018) p.196.

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.

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.

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.

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.