Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Richard Burnett has given us a careful, reasoned, and documented examination of theological exegesis as Karl Barth’s basic hermeneutical principle. The book’s thesis is that Barth adopted the core of his approach to theological exegesis very early after his break from the dominant liberal Protestantism of his day in 1915. In fact, how Barth had come to believe we are empowered to understand the Bible, Burnett contends, was central to his break. The primary audience for the book is scholars and pastors who want better to understand how and why Barth approaches the Bible as he does.
At the heart of Burnett’s analysis (a revision of his dissertation) is his careful reading and exposition of Barth’s discussion of exegesis and hermeneutical principles in his drafts of the preface to the several editions of his Römerbrief. The book includes a forward by Burnett’s dissertation adviser, Bruce McCormack. McCormack praises Burnett for helping to show that the basic direction of Barth’s exegesis was set by the time of Römerbrief.
As is well known, Barth was deeply influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Essentially, Barth saw himself as a follower of Schleiermacher until 1915. Thereafter, Barth did his work more or less consciously in opposition to Schleiermacher (p. 2). Burnett does a strong job of showing how influential Schleiermacher is upon Barth’s approach, both in the formation of Barth’s earlier liberalism and in his conscious rejection of Schleiermacher’s approach after 1915. Essentially, Burnett shows us, Barth’s early inheritance from Schleiermacher was an approach to the Bible that was primarily historical and psychological, seeking to understand Paul and other scriptural writers as religious personalities. After 1915, Barth viewed that as exactly the wrong approach to the Bible. It might be interesting, but it did not take seriously, Barth believed, the “subject matter, content, and substance” of the Bible, namely God and God’s revelation (pp. 76f). Barth had no problem with the work of historical criticism or other forms of anthropological analysis, but all that was secondary, even incidental, to him. For Barth, exegesis trumps hermeneutics. The reason is that a faithful interpreter seeks to have God address him or her in the course of her reading. Careful attention to the text is of far greater importance to Barth than is concern for the precise nature of a particular text. For example, he once responded to a question whether the serpent in Genesis 3 had “really” spoken. “I would oppose characterizing it as ‘myth.’ No more can I, on the other hand, characterize it, in the sense of historical science, as ‘historical.’ . . . But I should like to ask . . . whether it would not be better to hold fast to the fact that ‘it is written’ and to go on and interest [our]selves in what the serpent said?” (quoted at 262f). This is an example of what Barth in his Church Dogmatics calls a “tested, critical naiveté” (quoted at 116).
Burnett also does a good job showing how much Barth’s new approach was influenced by his reading of Jean Calvin. When Barth first encountered Calvin’s biblical commentaries, he sought to combine the approaches of Calvin and Schleiermacher. After 1915, Barth saw a fundamental inconsistency between them and moved rather consciously to approach the Bible as Calvin did in his commentaries (pp. 250ff). He saw Calvin working patiently, energetically, trusting that the Spirit would permit the wall between the first and sixteenth centuries to become “transparent” (p. 58).
The approaches Barth rejected made any doctrine of inspiration or revelation irrelevant, Barth concluded. He believed that such an approach limited the freedom of God. Burnett argues that Barth’s approach, one that focuses on the text of the Bible and awaits the Spirit speaking through that text, is vital for a church and academy that tends to read historically, psychologically, or deconstructively (p. 264).
The book is by no means a quick read. For one who desires to explore deeply an approach to the Bible that emphasizes, first and last, “attention to the text itself” (p. 264), the effort to read Burnett will be rewarding.
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING 2008, VOL. 8, #1.
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