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that Barth was very much aware of his hermeneutical approach (in terms of principles for interpretation) and how the unpublished prefaces make sense of what are only hints of his hermeneutics in published work of the time.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.