The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.

 

References

  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.

Job and Hitching to Wisdom

The Old Testament has been in the news in the last few weeks. Andy Stanley, a gifted preacher and Senior Pastor at North Point Community Church, argued in a series of sermons (Aftermath #1, #2 and #3) that Christians should unhitch from the Old Testament. Having listened to the sermons concerned, more than once and having read a follow-up interview, I am still not clear just what he actually means by ‘unhitching’. What I am clearer about is that Andy Stanley makes a number of unhelpful assumptions and steps in arriving at his conclusion. These include:

  • The notion that atheists object to the Old Testament but are quite willing to accept the New Testament’s claim about the resurrection of Jesus.
  • A misrepresentation of the Reformation idea of sola scriptura; divorcing it from the Rule of Faith.
  • Equating ‘the law’ with the whole of the Old Testament.
  • An understanding of Old Testament law as legalism, a notion that has been thoroughly discredited since E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
  • A failure to recognise that Paul worked very hard to stay hitched to the Old Testament, as evidenced in the whole Pauline corpus, given his experience of the resurrected Jesus. Paul remained a Pharisee committed to the Law (Philippians 3:5).
  • The failure to acknowledge the fact that not a single chapter of the New Testament can make sense without reference to the Old Testament. This includes the very chapters Stanley preached on.

Here in the UK, part of the incredulity at his suggestion of ‘unhitching’ might come from the fact that most Christians this side of the pond are not wedded to the incredibly unhelpful notion of Scripture’s inerrancy (most famously part of the Chicago Statement). I have a high view of Scripture, informed by 2 Timothy 3:16, but have found inerrancy to be a slippery and alien notion for describing Scripture. It represents the on-going and unhelpful tendency to make Scripture what it is not—history, science, biography and other modern categories. ‘God-breathed’ works better. And why would anyone want to unhitch from something that is God-breathed? Rather ironically Stanley says he agrees with the Chicago Statement’s view of Scripture in the same breath as attempting to deal with the problems introduced by this conservative straitjacket.

But what about Job? Despite the fact that I don’t agree with Stanley, we must acknowledge that Christian frustrations, of one sort or another, are not a new issue. Perhaps it is cheap to mention Marcion? Perhaps not. In any case, any Bible-reading Christian will have had challenging encounters with the Old Testament. Anyone who hasn’t is really not paying attention to its claims, worldview, ethics and God. Job raises one subset of the wider and very legitimate question: ‘What are we meant to do with the Old Testament?’. We certainly can’t see it as a monolith. The books of which it is comprised are of very different categories, although we could do worse than start with the Jewish categories of Torah (instruction rather than plain law), Prophets (this includes what we often call history books—Joshua to Kings—as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve) and the Writings. The Writings, where Job belongs, are akin to DVD extras. They complement the story that is unfolded in Genesis to Kings.

Job is often said to answer the question of suffering. But it does not. If we read it only to address this question we will ultimately be disappointed. If we think it might answer the question of the origin of evil we will be perplexed. So why do we have (i)  a narrative about God and Satan agreeing to let Job suffer, (ii) chapter-after-chapter of poetic dialogues with subtle, and sometimes less than subtle differences of opinion, and (iii) an epilogue in which Satan makes no appearance?

Well this post won’t entirely answer such questions. But a plausible and partial answer is that although we do not find theological certainties about suffering and evil, we find something far more biblical. We find, written large, the dangers of being hasty in narrowly pinning down answers to the biggest questions in a broken creation. All of Job’s friends think they have answers. In so doing, they make the twin mistakes of thinking (i) they know Job better than he knows himself, (ii) they know the mind of God. Job has questions. They have answers. Whilst it would be overstating Job’s case to say that God speaks to him with approval—he does not. Nevertheless, he receives from God. He receives nothing less than revelation (Job 38:1–42:6). What do Job’s friend get? Nothing except the text’s occasional play on words—wordplay that implies they are full of wind (ruach) rather than God’s Spirit (ruach), see for example Job 16:3.

Can we tell the difference between the wisdom of questions, and the foolishness of wrong answers and false certainties? Job, the book, exists to help us learn just this.

Job might have foreseen his resurrection (Job 19:26). We certainly have that hope (1 Corinthians 15:12). But, this side of resurrection, we cannot make Scripture what it was never meant to be. Scripture answers where salvation and the Universe’s future is to be found, and also founded—that is in Christ. It also, in texts such as Job, helps us learn to speak wisely about the mystery that is our God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and to know when we should just put our hands over our mouth (Job 40:4).

Exodus 12: Six Facets of the Passover

1. The Right Time
We often speak of the right time for something to happen. We do this when from an earthly perspective ‘things’ make sense and come together neatly. Sometimes this can, of course, be God acting providentially. Sometimes, however, we must face that fact that God’s understanding of the right time might differ from ours. Typically, we err on the side of impatience and quick fixes. We also are prone to want to forget that we can learn through hardship, difficulty and pain.

I imagine that is how the descendants of Abraham that lived under Egyptian oppression would have felt. Perhaps questioning, not only God’s timing, but questioning him full stop—“Where is the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”.

For individuals in desperate situations God’s timing can seem incomprehensible. We need to face this reality with honesty as well as trust.

The Bible is clear that from God’s perspective the Passover, and the whole Exodus, take place at the right time. It would appear that the formation of God’s people required the suffering of slavery and oppression as well as the redemption and liberation of Passover and parted-sea. This whole narrative is presented as part of a plan. A plan prefigured in the patriarchal narratives and their preoccupation with firstborn sons, sacrificial lambs and Egypt. A plan which prefigures the sequel of Jesus’ last Passover meal and his death as firstborn and Lamb of God.

Such claims require faith. In the midst of turmoil Moses needed trust and faith. As Hebrews tell us:

By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.     Hebrews 11:28

There are times when we need the same level of faith as we face the worst that life in a broken creation can throw at us. Redemption and liberation in all their richness are a two-stage process. They happen here and now most certainly. But our deliverance is made complete only in the age to come. As we peer through a glass darkly, trust is required. Whatever the appearance of things to us—in God’s timing all things make sense.

There are times when trust is relatively easy. There are times when it takes all our effort and courage. When trust in God comes easily we would do well to be disciplined in walk with God, so that we have the wisdom, discipline, strength and trust to lean on him in the tough times.

2. The Right Space
God not only acts at the right time, but also in the right space. God is a God who works and acts in specific places. This rather obvious claim—that God is Yahweh and Jesus was a Jew—challenges people in our culture who do not believe in God. For many people the God they don’t believe in is an abstract being far removed from this earth. Our Christian claim is far more surprising. Whilst the question of the existence of an abstract god can be addressed by reason, many of the most important claims about the God of Moses rely on revelation.

We don’t know why God chose the lifetime of Moses to work out his plan. We don’t know why God chose Abraham as the Father of his people. We don’t know why God sent his son to live, die and be resurrected in a nation under Roman rule. But the Bible tells us so.

When we are obedient to God, we are in the right space. The right space is not, however, always a place of straightforward blessing.
Israel as a nation where in the right place in the events of Passover and the escape from Egypt. They were also in the right space when in slavery, as God was forming and preparing them as a people.

We can put ourselves in the wrong space as we make bad choices. But when bad things happen to us it is not necessarily a consequence of bad choices or sin—the Book of Job killed that damaging theology. Trusting God in the midst of challenge and adversity is the sign we are mature followers of Jesus; such challenges are of course the way that God disciplines and matures us. Even in the secular world of self-help the truth of learning through challenge and failure is recognised.

Time and again in the story of the exodus the people of God must decide, in the midst of trial and turmoil, who will they trust? Time and again in the story of our little lives we have to decide, who will we trust?

Exodus 12 6th May 2018

3. Yahweh’s Power
The central act by God at the Passover—the death of the firstborn of every family—is a dramatic act of power. It is also terrifying on just about every level. To modern sensibilities the Passover narrative is a text of terror and there are of course interpretive strategies that address this challenge in different ways—with diverse degrees of success and conviction. This is not the place to rehearse these.

Some theologians use a special phrase to refer to events like the Passover in First Testament: Magnalia Dei, or The Mighty Acts of God. The events described in the Passover and wider exodus story are at the top of the scale of power. The other plagues, whilst acts of power in their own right have merely been a foretaste of this event. Each plague ridiculed an Egyptian god. The tenth and final one shows Yahweh rather than Osiris as the god of death. It can also be seen as an answer to the horror of Pharaoh’s dealings with new-borns at the opening of Exodus. Yahweh’s tenth plague is a terrible reply.

The Second Testament provides fresh insight into God’s power. God, as glorious creator, is still of course a God of raw power. But in Christ we see that in God’s mercy he does not deal with earthly power by just trumping it. He subverts the very meaning of power in the cross—in the frailty and weakness of Jesus’ body, broken for us, we see God’s power displayed in a new upside-down light. Cross and Resurrection together complete the re-evaluation of God’s power—Paul’s letters reflect on this at length (for example see 1 Corinthians 1).

The Mighty Acts of God in Passover are a foretaste of the New Testament’s Passover Lamb, Jesus. Who would have thought that a single lamb would one day enable members of every tribe and nation to be saved at the same time as redefining power? We would do well to understand that in this age God’s power is made known firstly in meekness and secondly in majesty. The biblical hope is one in which for God’s plan to be completed, a day is coming when majesty will once more be centre stage.

4. A New Reality
The Passover marks a new reality. Once they were not a people—now the descendants of the Patriarchs are the people of God. Once we were not a people—in Christ the new Passover Lamb we were made the people of God.

The Passover is the turning point of the story of how the Israelites escape captivity in Egypt. Such a decisive act of power by their God is what was needed to initiate their departure. A grieving hard-hearted pharaoh will now let God’s people go.

This new reality looks back—Yahweh’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob make a decisive step towards completion. The Passover also echoes the ram that substituted for Abraham’s firstborn.

This new reality looks forward—he foundations of the New Exodus are laid. The many lambs of Passover pre-empt the one lamb at Calvary. The death of so many firstborn precedes the death of the Yahweh’s firstborn.

5. Calling to Mind
We need to remember—to call to mind—God’s faithfulness in creating and redeeming a people. As frail human beings we are too slow to remember God’s acts and his grace. One minute we are thanking and praising God, the next we have forgotten.

Throughout Scripture there are exhortations to remember—to call to mind—who God is and his Mighty Acts redemption and salvation. Scripture is many things, including testimony. We have a First Testament, or testimony. We have a Second Testament, or testimony. The act of reading the smallest part of Scripture is an act of remembering—calling to mind—the living God. As daily bread it is vital nourishment.

The testimony of the Bible should not of course be only an individual practice. It has a special vitality as gathered communities remember together. This is especially the case in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as we remember the one Passover Lamb.

6. Every Soul
The story of good news started very specifically with promises made to one man named Abraham. But the good news that was founded then is for every soul.

The story became richer with promises made to one nation. But the good news that was emerging is for very soul.

The story finished with one man’s death and resurrection. The Good News that the one man was both God-man and Passover Lamb. And that he was God’s firstborn son—firstborn because he is the first of many children, for the good news is for every soul.

Perceiving, Proclaiming and Partaking of the Cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’   Mark 8:31–33

1. Perceiving the Cross

I have lost count of the number of times I have correctly predicted the future. Please don’t be anxious this is not a claim to be a clairvoyant or a confession of divination. Simply the acknowledgement that I am a parent.

I recall all three of my children running around in circles in our house. My words proclaimed wisely: “If you don’t calm down someone’s going to get hurt”. The sentence was barely finished and we were weighing-up whether go to take a child to hospital, as a swelling grew before our eyes on their forehead.

I also recall making the comment: “If you drag him round by his arms like that you will dislocate something”. The uncontrollable crying was only silenced two hours later in hospital as a doctor fixed an elbow joint with a dull click.

More recently by knowledge of the world had me observe: “If you keep kicking the ball that hard you’ll break a pane of glass in the greenhouse”. This time I hadn’t quite foreseen what would happen. There were three broken panes.

This is no prescience, or anything unnatural, this is cause and effect. Years of observing how the world works and inferring what will happen next. This is what the Bible calls wisdom. Jesus has often been labelled as a Sage, a biblical wise man in the tradition of Solomon and in the tradition of the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Many of his words recorded in the gospels echo the wise way of looking at the world and at life, for example:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   Matthew 6:28–29

As Jesus discovered his mission, to preach and teach about God’s Kingdom, and grew in his understanding of the scope of what he was doing and teaching; as he realised he was the Son, as he worked out what this meant—he didn’t need to be the wisest sage to put two and two together—to realise he would come into massive conflict with the authorities.

As hostility grew with the religious leaders, to his words and deeds, it would have become painfully clear to Jesus that there was not going to be a happy conclusion to his ministry on earth.

As the best teacher of his day, as the wisest sage, as the most remarkable worker of miracles he was not destined to become ‘Professor of the Kingdom’, at the University of Jerusalem, but rather he was so bugging the scribes, the elders, the chief priests, that a conflict was inevitable. And when the Romans eventually noticed, well, others had done less—and been less—and been silenced by execution.

In this way Jesus perceived that death was the outcome of his words and actions. But wisdom and reason only get anyone so far. Although Jesus gave up the attributes of deity prior to his Incarnation, as a man he was still able to receive from God—he was still able to experience revelation.

That he was not only proclaiming a message but was the message, didn’t come from being wise—this could only come from revelation.

Whilst reason pointed to his death at the hands of Jews and Romans in an unholy alliance to silence an inconvenient truth, only revelation can point to the significance of that death. Human wisdom points to cause and effect. It is only revelation that can truly explain.

And it was a vicious cycle as Jesus recognised who he was—Son of God and Messiah—so he upset the authorities more and more. There was an inevitability that he would die because of his words and deeds. Our passage does not mention the cross. We read this back into this episode. But Jesus was probably all too aware of the likely nature of his death.

As Jesus wrestled with God the Father in prayer; perhaps in those profound moments of baptism and transfiguration, he received an answer:

the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again

 Through wisdom Jesus saw his death; through revelation he understood its significance and glimpsed resurrection too.

2. Proclaiming the Cross

As Jesus understood his death and resurrection—as he reasoned and as God revealed—he became the first to proclaim the cross. And what a result. If healing, miracles and inspired preaching caused hostility, the preaching of the cross inspired disbelief and fear. So off-the-mark is Peter that Jesus sees the hand of the deceiver, of Satan, at work.

From Peter’s perspective, so unwelcome and so unexpected was Jesus’ proclamation that he simply saw it as wrong. In his mind it went again everything he had learnt. That your Rabbi should die would surely mean they were a failed teacher. That a Messiah should die was unthinkable. It did not stand to reason. Jesus’ death as Son of God, as Messiah requires new knowledge—revelation, first to Jesus, then to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

Peter was so bewildered by the thought of Jesus’ death, that in all likelihood he couldn’t see beyond this to remotely comprehend Jesus rising again.

Jesus, of course, had to start with his disciples—a constant education by drip-feeding information. They might not understand his death and resurrection before they happened, but they needed to afterwards.

The drip-feed education is seen in two further episodes in Mark, for example in the second one we read:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.   Mark 9:30–32

The thought of Death and Resurrection caused Peter to disbelieve and to fear. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection always has a result. Its meaning provokes response. Disbelief is perhaps the normal first response. Fear is perhaps the natural step beyond disbelief. An emotional response of fear is a belief of sorts.

We can expect similar responses as we share the gospel. Some will simply disbelieve. Some will make a more significant move and be fearful. Such people are only a hair-breadth away from the belief that inspires fear to the belief that inspires faith.

3. Partaking of the Cross

The disciples journeyed with Jesus, but they were also on a different sort of journey—a journey of discovery as to who Jesus was. This journey can only end when the significance of both his death and resurrection are understood. The disciples had already partaken of the First Covenant—they were circumcised—and each year they remembered the Covenant during Passover. Each and every Sabbath they heard the Law of the Covenant read. This First Covenant came as Revelation, as God revealed himself in mighty acts and in his Word. The disciples needed fresh revelation to understand the New Covenant. They had partaken of a First Covenant that knew its foundation in the blood of a lamb. They were soon to experience the Last Supper at Passover.

The disciples some forty, or so, days after that Passover would understand John’s baptism afresh in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They would understand that baptism marked the start of partaking in the gospel. A step into water, being submerged and coming up out of the water, marks the journey from old life to new life. It marks the entry into a new covenant with God.

Hearing the gospel is a way of receiving the gospel, of receiving grace. Sharing bread and wine is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace. Being baptised in water as obedience to Jesus; being baptised by Spirit by the laying of hands, such a baptism is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace.

We would do well to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self-help gospel. The good news of new life only comes through grace—through God’s undeserved favour. Representing the Gospel as a lifestyle choice—a self-help gospel—like all the other lifestyle choices is one of the reasons for the frailty of the Western Church.

In the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Captain Miller and others, give their lives, as the film’s title reveals, to save private Ryan from death in combat. As Miller dies, having given his own life, he tells Private Ryan to “Earn this”.

In contrast, the cross does not speak of earning. We cannot earn it, we can only receive it. We can partake, in what is a remarkable gift of new covenant, new relationship, new life. The normal Christian birth comes, first through hearing the Word, then through baptism in Spirit and Water, and then is regularly renewed, remembered and celebrated through Bread and Wine.

So, carry on receiving this gospel—listen, be filled, be cleansed, be fed—imbibe the very water of life. All these things are what it means to perceive the cross, proclaim the cross and partake of the cross.

 

Y is for YHWH

When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.

Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh.  Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)

The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.

It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel.  This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],

    he is the King of glory. Selah

Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)

Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.

 

Beautiful Lord: An Advent Reflection on Revelation 1:12‒18

What is Beauty?

Beauty tends to be something that is peripheral to Western society and culture today. At least that is my view. When things are marginal there is a danger that they are neglected. Worse still, in an age of soundbites we might define important things by a short saying or an aphorism.

In the past Beauty was a central concept within Christian Theology. It was joined by Goodness and Truth. Some theologians organised their whole theology around these three. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called urgently for a need to reclaim beauty in our theology and thinking. His stark claim that instigated a multi-decade project is worth a lengthy quotation:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1 Seeing the Form

I want to speak positively about Beauty. But this positivity is in the context of the danger posed by Western culture. The values of our culture in practice are:

  • Post-goodness—morality based on any absolutes is under attack. Only a shallow concept of rights exists.
  • Post-truth—politics has become so cynical that plain untruths are said and the electorate are, either powerless to change this or collude with it.
  • Post-beauty—advertising tells us what is beautiful.

When it comes to beauty there is no shortage of sayings that spring to mind. Two in particular pervade Western culture:

  1. Beauty is only skin deep. Sir Thomas Overbury is the first person known to have used this in print, in his poem A Wife (1613). She was probably less than impressed.
  2. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has been used in many forms and its origin is obscure. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford first used in this form in her novel Molly Bawn (1878).

Whilst both have some value, the latter’s potential to deny absolute beauty is problematic for a Christian Theology of beauty.

The Bible and Beauty

A typical English translation of the Bible does not have many Hebrew and Greek words translated as beauty. For example, the New International Version has 71 occurrences of Beautiful and 33 of Beauty. Most of these uses of the two words refer to physical human beauty. The first usage in the Bible has this meaning:

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

Genesis 6:2 (NIV)

Around 20% of the uses of beauty and beautiful occur in the erotic love poem Song of Songs and relate to physical beauty. But this in itself tells as something further about God. Song of Songs is an erotic love poem but its place in the Bible has as much to do with how it tells of God’s love for his people and the love of his people for him.

We are meant to find God beautiful just as he recognises the beauty of his people perfected in Christ.

Some uses of the words beauty and beautiful refer to the importance of an inner beauty, picking up on beauty being ‘only skin deep’. In Ezekiel 16 we find almost 10% of all Bible uses of the words beauty and beautiful. It is imagery about the beauty of God’s people and how as God’s beloved they looked for another lover. The inference is that their beauty should have been more than skin deep—the beauty of God’s people lies in who they are in God.

Some of these words from Ezekiel use imagery which is coherent with what God has done for us in Christ:

“‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewellery: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Ezekiel 16:914 (NIV)

In the New Testament, Peter, being a fisherman points out the relationship between inner and outer beauty more succinctly:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:34 (NIV)

I am reminded of the words of the humble hobbit gardener, Sam Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings:

“Handsome is as handsome does.”

Very few, if any, of the occurrences of beauty and beautiful (in most English Bible translations) refer to creation. In an exception, Ezekiel 31:9 one of the trees of Eden is referred to as beautiful, surpassing all the other trees. So exceptional is this usage that it proves the rule. A few uses of these two words refer to God, for example:

From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes
and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.

Psalm 50:2‒3 (NIV)

Glory

So how can beauty be a central biblical concept if when reading Scripture we find the semantic range refers largely to physical appearance with only an occasional acknowledgement that inner beauty is more important?

What of the beauty of God?

What of the beauty of creation?

We have a different word in English that overlaps with beauty. A word that translates the Hebrew word, kavod. This word captures the idea of being heavy—of having serious substance or great importance. It is often translated heart—literally liver in Hebrew, the liver being the heaviest and therefore most important organ—as the most important part of somebody.

Glory, comes into its own as the tangible importance and greatness of God; it goes beyond the visibility of beauty into beautiful presence and beautiful physicality. My favourite example is Psalm 24 where it is intertwined with Yahweh’s kingship, strength and might:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24: 710 (NIV)

The Beauty of God

In the Book of Revelation John the Elder, describes his encounter with Christ. Like all of this remarkable book it is written in the symbolic language of apocalyptic—a rich poetic way to describe things beyond the everyday. His description of Christ can sound reminiscent of the unhelpful ‘old man on a cloud’ view of God, for example, hair like white wool, but when understood as imagery it becomes much richer.

One day we too will each encounter the living Christ as he judges all of creation ahead of the renewal of heaven and earth. Unlike John’s vision ours will be a full encounter with the beautiful resurrected Christ.

Isaiah described the suffering servant in this way:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

The risen Jesus is not just beautiful he is full of majesty and glory. Perhaps like John our encounter with Jesus will make us fall to the ground as though dead.

The vision of John portrays Jesus Christ among his Church, the seven lamp stands. He is living and active in our midst when we gather.

His clothes are those of a priest. The ultimate priest who enables us to come before the living God. A priest, who as a sacrifice without beauty, makes us beautiful before the Father.

For this beautiful figure is not just the risen Jesus. He is the Christ. Not just Son of Man, but one like a Son of Man. Now shown to be God himself in resurrection glory. Lest we be in any doubt, we see his hair, white like wool, white like snow—this is the ancient of days, the God of Israel.

Through the cross and resurrection his purity and holiness have been found perfect—we can see this as his feet glow like bronze in a furnace.

Like his Father before him his spoken word is like the sound of rushing water—a sound so loud that it silences everything else. His spoken word is inflected by a tongue like a double-edged sword.

In this way he judges all. Those made clean by his priestly sacrifice will withstand this judgement, being found pure like him. His beauty and glory given to them as a free and gracious gift. And because of this his people can stand before him bathed in the light shining from his face; illuminated not blinded, warmed not consumed.

One day we will know the very touch of the living Christ. He will declare to us that we need not fear, he has led the way into God’s beautiful presence. He was First, there with God in the beginning. He is Last, in that he has restored the creation broken by the sin of Adam. In a sense he became Adam but he did not stray. In resurrection he makes an end to Adam’s sin. He is the Living One—not just the resurrected Jesus but the Living God Yahweh. God of Israel and God of all the redeemed of mankind.

He was dead just as we will die, but he is alive, just as we too shall be made alive in him. He holds the keys of both death and Hades. As his followers we have no need to fear death or Hades.

Please see Malcolm Guite’s O Rex Gentium which provides an appropriate reflective prayer.

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.