Sunday 17 May 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 4

[This is the fourth of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

If precritical interpretation has provided a fertile field in which to engage, nearer in time to contemporary scholars, Karl Barth (1886-1968) has proved to be significant as a ‘pioneer of theological criticism’ (Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice [Nottingham: Apollos, 2008], 14-20. See also Angus Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 133 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 10). As part of the massive renaissance of interest in Barth more generally has gone an interest in Barth’s hermeneutics.

[Select significant treatments include: Richard E. Burnett, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Römerbrief Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); M.K. Cunningham, What is Theological Exegesis? Interpretation and Use of Scripture in Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1995), and ‘Karl Barth’, in Justin S. Holcomb (ed.), Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 183-201; David F. Ford, ‘Barth’s Interpretation of the Bible’, in S.W. Sykes (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Method (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 55-87; David Paul Henry, The Early Development of the Hermeneutic of Karl Barth as Evidenced By His Appropriation of Romans 5:12-21, NABPR Dissertation Series 5 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1985); Werner G. Jeanrond, ‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutics’, in Nigel Biggar (ed.), Reckoning With Barth: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of Karl Barth’s Birth (London: Mowbray, 1988), 80-97; Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth, A Theological Legacy, trans. Garrett E. Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 70-82; Paul McGlasson, Jesus and Judas: Biblical Exegesis in Barth, American Academy of Religion Academy Series 72 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1991); Charles J. Scalise, ‘Canonical Hermeneutics: Childs and Barth’, Scottish Journal of Theology 47, 1 (1994), 61-88; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation’, in Sung Wook Chung (ed.), Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), 26-59; Mark I. Wallace, ‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic: A Way Beyond the Impasse’, Journal of Religion 68, 3 (1988), 396-410; ‘The World of the Text: Theological Hermeneutics in the Thought of Karl Barth and Paul Ricoeur’, Union Seminary Quarterly Review 41, 1 (1986), 1-15, and more fully in The Second Naiveté: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 6 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990); Donald Wood, ‘“Ich sah mit Staunen”: Reflections on the Theological Substance of Barth’s Early Hermeneutics’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58, 2 (2005), 184-98, and Barth’s Theology of Interpretation, Barth Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). See also Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Significance of Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Philippians’, and Francis B. Watson, ‘Barth’s Philippians as Theological Exegesis’, in Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians: 40th Anniversary Edition, trans. James W. Leitch (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), v-xxv and xxvi-li.]

Much of the attention focuses on Barth’s early work, particularly his 1917 lecture ‘Die neue Welt in der Bibel’ and the preface to the first two editions of Der Römerbrief (1919 and 1922). In the former, he says:

‘The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible. The word of God is within the Bible.’

[Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World Within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935), 28-50, here 43.]

With reference to Barth’s commentary on Romans, Wood notes that ‘describing the engagement of the contemporary reader with scripture in terms drawn from the text itself, Barth makes a distinctive and still relevant contribution to [the] church’s attempt to account for its reading practices’ (Wood, ‘Reflections’, 184).

That so much of Barth’s exegesis takes place in the context of the Church Dogmatics demonstrates the interdependency between exegesis and doctrine in his theology (cf. McGlasson, Jesus and Judas, 79). Cunningham (What is Theological Exegesis?) notes that Karl Barth ‘practices a kind of theological exegesis that exemplifies this impasse between technical exegetes and constructive theologians’ (11), where his handling of texts is driven by theological commitments (78). It also makes it difficult to provide an easy systematisation of his hermeneutics.

David Ford offers an approach to Barth which sees as key his handling of the biblical narrative, with the story of Jesus as the centre of Scripture through which other passages gain their meaning.

[Ford, ‘Barth’s Interpretation of the Bible’, and more fully in his Barth and God’s Story: Biblical Narrative and the Theological Method of Karl Barth in The ‘Church Dogmatics’, Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity 27 (Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1985). David Bosworth, ‘Revisiting Karl Barth’s Exegesis of 1 Kings 13’, Biblical Interpretation 10, 4 (2002), 360-83 notes that Barth offered a ‘naive’ holistic reading of the text at a time dominated by studies more interested in separating the text into alleged sources.]

Whilst not denying the significance of narrative, McGlasson refers to the ‘enormous variety that one notices immediately upon reading the biblical exegesis in any one volume of the Church Dogmatics’ (Jesus and Judas, 8). McGlasson himself maintains that ‘witness’ is as close a description of Barth’s biblical exegesis that one can get (Jesus and Judas, 11-46), and that ‘if one is to isolate for consideration a single tendency more prominent than others it would be the tendency toward Christocentric exegesis’ (Jesus and Judas, 47, and see 47-78). Historical critics offer preliminary investigation of the text, but (for Barth) exegesis involves reading the Bible on its own terms and comprehending the subject matter of the text, that to which it bears witness – God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Small wonder, then, that he has become an important exemplar of theological interpretation; as Wallace notes:

‘Barth’s theological hermeneutic points us beyond the cul-de-sac that results from regarding historical criticism and literary analysis in isolation from a thoroughgoing theological use of Scripture’ (Wallace, ‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic’, 397).

Barth’s exegesis has been described as postcritical, belonging to ‘a postcritical period, in which Scripture can be read naively again’.

[Wallace, ‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic’, 401, referring to Rudolf Smend, ‘Nachkritische Schriftauslegung’, in Eberhard Busch (ed.), Parrhesia: Karl Barth zum achtzigsten Geburtstag (Zürich: EVZ Verlag, 1966), 215-37, at 218. See also Ford, Barth and God’s Story, 51.]

In fact, although Barth showed the limits of historical-critical study for a more theological exegesis, historical criticism was not completely set aside.

[See, e.g., Bruce McCormack, ‘Historical Criticism and Dogmatic Interest in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis of the New Testament’, in Mark S. Burrows and Paul Rorem (eds.), Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective: Studies in Honor of Karlfried Froehlich on His Sixtieth Birthday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 322-38; Wallace, ‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic’, 397-402.]

The issue is whether ‘some dogmatic interests might not be more suitable and appropriate for New Testament exegesis than others’ (McCormack, ‘Historical Criticism and Dogmatic Interest’, 324). Historical study remains an initial stage of exegesis; but it takes place under some controlling interest, and it is important to be self-conscious about those interests, and to place oneself under the teaching of the church and its creeds and confessions which have come about as a result of tested reading (McCormack, ‘Historical Criticism and Dogmatic Interest’, 337).

Interestingly, Wallace detects an affinity between Barth’s antihistoricist hermeneutic and literary approaches to biblical texts (‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic’, 402-408).

‘For Barth, the storied world of the Bible is not simply one world amidst a plurality of other literary worlds; as the Word of God written, it is the divinely chosen textual environment within which God in Christ through the Spirit is actively present to the reader today’ (‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic’, 405).

Even this, however, remains in the service of theological hermeneutics; just as he questioned historicist assumptions, so he would question the textualist assumptions of contemporary critics (‘Karl Barth’s Hermeneutic’, 405-407).

Studies on Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) show him emerging as another significant exemplar of theological exegesis.

[See, e.g., Jason Bourgeois, ‘Balthasar’s Theodramatic Hermeneutics: Trinitarian and Ecclesial Dimensions of Scriptural Interpretation’, in Carol J. Dempsey and William P. Loewe (eds.), Theology and Sacred Scripture, College Theology Society Annual Volume 47 (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002), 125-34; W.T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), and more briefly ‘Hans Urs von Balthasar’, in Holcomb (ed.), Christian Theologies of Scripture, 202-19, and ‘Balthasar’s Biblical Hermeneutics’, in Edward T. Oakes and David Moss (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 175-86. See also Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 307-22.]

Like Barth, his work is particularly significant in demonstrating a connection with the concerns of Hans Frei. Both Balthasar’s and Frei’s retrieval of precritical interpretation was not hopelessly naive, but part of a larger post-critical project where biblical interpretation functions ‘to nurture and sustain the capacity of Christians to understand themselves and their world in terms of the stories, concepts, and images of the Bible’ (Dickens, Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics, 235-36, and see 4-11). Drawn to the Scriptures and patristics as his main sources of theological reflection, Balthasar was also influenced by the work of his teacher, Henri de Lubac, and was committed to the revival of a sensus fidelium (Dickens, Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics, 10-17, 20-22).

‘For Balthasar, exegesis is a theological activity, and theology can be done only within the Church of believers… [T]he exegete cannot adopt a neutral position that brackets off the questions of faith and theology: his researches must be “committed”.’

[Brian McNeil, ‘The Exegete as Iconographer: Balthasar and the Gospels’, in John Riches (ed.), The Analogy of Beauty: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), 134-46, here 139. See further John Riches, ‘Von Balthasar as Biblical Theologian and Exegete’, New Blackfriars 79, 923 (1998), 38-45.]

Scripture is most appropriately read from a perspective of faith, in the context of the church, in dependence on the Spirit. Scripture is self-interpreting in that its various parts are interrelated and illumine each other, and with an expectation, without succumbing to hermeneutical relativism, of the Bible as having multiple meanings, all of which, however, are focused on Christ (see Bourgeois, ‘Balthasar’s Theodramatic Hermeneutics’, 125-33; Dickens, ‘Balthasar’s Biblical Hermeneutics’, 179-83). Beyond this, obedience to God is the goal and purpose of biblical interpretation.

Increased attention in this respect might also be usefully paid to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

[See, e.g., Brian Brock, Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 71-95; Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1991), 135-64; Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture for the Church’, Ex Auditu 17 (2001), 1-30; John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 87-110 (‘Reading the Bible: The Example of Barth and Bonhoeffer’), and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 78-85; Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 274-322.]

Like Barth, Bonhoeffer refuses to identify ‘objectivity’ with method: ‘the Wissenschaftlichkeit of exegesis is its orientation to Scripture as the church’s book, that is, a text which has its place in that sphere of human life and history which is generated by God’s revelation’ (Webster, Word and Church, 100). Moreover, ‘theological exegesis construes Scripture as a unified whole, and defines that coherence Christologically’ (Webster, Word and Church, 100). With Calvin, both Barth and Bonhoeffer emphasise the need to be subordinate to Scripture. Holy Scripture is the voice of the living God, and demands submission and obedience. Webster summarises Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutics thus:

‘First, hermeneutical and methodological questions are at best of secondary importance in the interpretation of Scripture. The real business is elsewhere, and it is spiritual, and therefore dogmatic… Second, it is therefore true that a fittingly Christian hermeneutics “requires the formation and transformation of the character appropriate to Christian disciples”… Third, the chief task of Christian theology is exegesis The reason for that is devastatingly simple: “Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God”’ (Webster, Word and Church, 109-10, citing Fowl and Jones, Reading in Communion, 1).

The real difficulty in reading Scripture is frequently spiritual and moral: ‘it is our refusal as sinners to be spoken to, our wicked repudiation of the divine address, our desire to speak the final word to ourselves. From these sicknesses of the soul, no amount of sophistication can heal us’ (Webster, Word and Church, 109).

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