Barth on Historical Criticism

Barth explains his objections to exegesis that never moves beyond the historical-critical level [for context see previous two posts]:

Taking Jülcher’s work as typical of much modern exegesis, we observe how closely he keeps to the mere deciphering of words as though they were runes. But, when all is done, they still remain largely unintelligible. How quick he is without any real struggling with the raw material of the Epistle, to dismiss this or that difficult passage as simply a peculiar doctrine or opinion of Paul! How quick he is to treat a matter as explained, when it is said to belong to the religious thought, feeling, experience, conscience, or conviction,—of Paul! And, when this does not at once fit, or is manifestly impossible, how easily he leaps, like some bold William Tell, right out of the Pauline boat, and rescues himself by attributing what Paul has said, to his ‘personality’, to the experience on the road to Damascus (an episode which seems capable of providing at any moment an explanation of every impossibility), to later Judaism, to Hellenism, or, in fact, to any exegetical semi-divinity of the ancient world!

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 7f.

Theological Commentary 2

The most influential opponent to the kind of commentary critiqued in the previous post is Karl Barth. In the Römerbrief Barth critiqued historical criticism’s failure to serve the preacher. He advocated moving beyond historical critical study in order to understand what God is saying to Christians in the present day. This demanded the commentator understand the theological import of the text. Barth also insisted that each part of the Bible be interpreted in light of the whole.

Though Barth’s polemics against liberalism made him unpopular among many liberals in his day and in the decades that followed, the influence of postmodernity on theology led to a revival in interest in Barth. For some Barth is attractive because he provides theologians with a way of addressing the problems of modernism without entirely abandoning their liberal presuppositions or theology.  (For the view that Barth’s theology, despite its critique of liberalism, remained liberal theology see Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion (Louisville: WJK, 2001), xxi.)

Theological Commentary

In April, Rick Phillips made this insightful observation about commentaries:

I also find that if you want doctrinal insights and applications, you need to look at older commentaries.  More current commentaries are far more likely to note literary connections, and often to real profit . . . . Yet, while the technical exegesis is in some respects improved of late, the sense of the message of the text has regressed.  If our commentaries reveal anything, we are becoming more technically acute but also less receptive of the prophetic message of the text for us.  Does this indicate a professionalization of the exegetical calling, so that we are more skilled in working over the Word and less attuned to sitting under the Word?  Yes, I think it does.

Rick Phillips, “Working Over or Sitting Under the Word,” Reformation21.

The roots to this shift go back to Benedict Spinzoa. Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise in 1670 marked a decisive turning point in biblical studies. In that work he de-privileged the Bible from its canonical status and laid the basis for the historical critical method. As a result, the Bible was no longer a canonical text that supplied theological meaning but one religious text among others to be dissected historically.

Christians (using the term in Machen’s sense) have for centuries rejected historical criticism of the kind proposed by Spinoza, but they have also been profoundly affected by it. In their defense of orthodoxy conservatives have often been shaped by the emphases of their opponents, if in the inverse. Craig Bartholomew comments, “There has been an (understandable) tendency for orthodox scholars to fight the battle for Scripture where opponents have attacked. Thus a huge amount of Christian energy has been devoted to historical issues during the twentieth century. Far less, alas, to interpretation of the Bible as God’s address” (“Calvin, Barth, and Theological Interpretation,” in Calvin, Barth, and Reformed Theology, ed. Neil B. MacDonald and Carl R. Trueman [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008], 164).