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 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.