‘Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture’ — And a Short Defense for Theological-Exgesis of Scripture

I just picked up George Hunsinger’s recently released (February 22, 2012) edited book, Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On ScriptureI am really excited to dig into this! Here is what the blurb says on the back jacket:

Over the past two decades studies on Karl Barth have become increasingly technical. The ironic result is that although Barth wrote chiefly for preachers, scholars have become the primary gatekeepers to his rich theological thought. This collection of essays introduces Karl Barth with both clarity and depth, providing pastors and other serious readers with a valuable overview of Barth’s views on Scripture. George Hunsinger — himself a recognized expert on Barth — and eight other scholars cover such topics as Barth’s belief that Scripture is both reliable and inspired, his typological exegesis, his ideas about time and eternity, and more. Reading this book will whet the reader’s appetite to engage further with Barth himself.

And here is what William Willimon says of the book on the back jacket as well:

In this exciting volume George Hunsinger (our finest contemporary interpreter of our greatest contemporary theologian, Karl Barth) gathers a distinguished group of scholars to assess and interpret Barth as a reader of Scripture. Each of these essays, in different ways, offers fresh insights into the theology of Karl Barth and into Scripture as a living witness to the truth who is Jesus Christ.

The authors and their respective chapters are:

I. Orientation

1. Scripture and Tradition in the Theology of Karl Barth, Robert McAfee Brown p. 3

2. The Doctrine of Inspiration and the Reliability of Scripture, Katherine Sonderegger, p. 20

3. Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation: Rudolf Smend on Karl Barth, George Hunsinger, p. 29

4. Scripture as Realistic Narrative: Karl Barth as Critic of Historical Criticism, Hans W. Frei, p. 49

II. Exemplification

5. “A Type of the One to Come”: Leviticus 14 and 16 in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Kathryn Greene-McCreight, p. 67

6. “Living Righteousness”: Karl Barth and the Sermon on the Mount, A Katherine Greib, p. 86

7. The Same Only Different: Karl Barth’s Interpretation of Hebrews 13:8, George Hunsinger, p. 112

8. Barth’s Lecture on the Gospel of John, John Webster, p. 125

III. Application

9. “Thy Word Is Truth”: The Role of Faith in Reading Scripture Theologically with Karl Barth, Paul D. Molnar, p. 151

10. The Heart of the Matter: Karl Barth’s Christological Exegesis, Paul Dafydd Jones, p. 173

APPENDICES: Examples of Barth on Scripture

A. On 1 Samuel 25: David and Abigail, p. 199

B. On the Gospel of John: The Prophetic Work of Christ, p. 213

C. On the Barmen Declaration: How Scripture Continually Saves the Church, p. 223

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A Personal Aside on Thinking Deeply & Theologically/Christologically

As you just read in the blurb — “Barth wrote chiefly for preachers, …” — and yet an average (and even above average and highly motivated) preacher who picks up Barth today will most likely be scratching his head a lot; indeed, this has to be the case for anyone who has ever tried to engage Barth at almost any level. But this reality brings me to something that I continue to find evocatively troubling; that is, that pastors and lay Christian people are not availing themselves of the rich storehouse of teachers that Christ has bequeathed his Church (cf. Eph. 4). To try and engage a teacher of the Church, like Karl Barth, requires a tenacity and soul searching that I don’t think most Christians have the time or even the temerity for. In fact I would suggest that at least in the American culture (if not the broader Western one), our microwaved conditioning and sound-bited existence make it that much more difficult for us to clear enough time to sit down and try to wrestle through the kind of thinking that Karl Barth provokes. Beyond this (and this is true to form relative to the American culture), in American Evangelicalism we have been taken captive by what some have termed a solo scriptura; meaning that all we need is the Bible, meaning that all I need is my own personal, introspective and private reading of the Bible for my daily bread. But this seems far from the reality, and my strongest argument against ‘solo scriptura’ (or scripture by itself in contrast to the Reformed ‘sola scriptura’) is that Jesus himself actually reinterpreted the Old Testament scriptures (often times in contrast to the Rabbinic readings of his earthly day) in light of himself. This at the least should underscore the fact that the scriptures have a ‘canon’ or standard by which they themselves are measured; indeed, this canon is none other than Christ in God’s life himself. In short, even Jesus engaged in what today has been termed as ‘theological-exegesis’; even Jesus recognized that you didn’t or couldn’t just read scripture in isolation or as your own private Readers-Digest. No, Jesus understood that the context through which the scriptures made sense was only in light of a theological reality.

So getting back to why reading someone like Barth is worthwhile: Because Barth offers a depth to the Christian grammar (or language through which Christians try to make sense of the reality of scripture; for example, by inventing terminology like Trinity etc.) that has had a substantial impact on large swaths of the Christian church. So we ought to spend the time, at least, thinking through what he communicated. I want to say much more, and maybe I will later in more posts. But I just want to reiterate how important it is to read theological works for Christian growth. I am not trying to suggest that reading the Bible is wrong — God forbid it!— I am suggesting that the thought that reading the Bible without understanding doesn’t make much sense; especially when Jesus has provided teachers for his Church (which we know by reading scripture).

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5 comments

  1. Also, brilliant and absolutely necessary as the translation work was for getting Barth into Anglophone hands, minds, and hearts, I have to say that it just seems like Barth was more accessible in the original language than he has ever been in English. And I feel like part of that is the culture of English that Barth was translated into. D. Densil Morgan’s tome on Barth’s Anglophone reception illustrates the variety of the reception of Barth in Britain, but it remains true that the most concerted and visible effort was put into translating Barth for the school, rather than Barth for the church. And so much of the writing on Barth, with the appearance of the Dogmatics, followed that line. Bromiley and Torrance, in the post-War period, created a virtual lock on how Barth was understood in English prose–because they did or oversaw so much of it!

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  2. Matt,

    How do you think, say for example the Church Dogmatics, would feel or look differently (as far as their reception and tone) if us English speakers could read Barth in his native German tongue? Or, how could he have been translated in a way that got his German/Swiss tone across better than it did (through Torrance and Bromiley)?

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  3. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to put this, because it’s not a simple thing to say. Put briefly, I’d say the difference has a lot to do with register issues in prose style. It’s the same in Greek, really. There’s a remarkable similarity between translating good Greek and good German (even of reasonably common oral dialects, rather than the high literary stuff) into good English. Good English is inevitably about smaller, more discrete sense units, with more rigidly linear syntax, than your average Greek or German sentence that’s trying to convey an idea. We simply use more, simpler sentences than they do per thought.

    And when we do make long complex sentences, and they’re not rambling, they tend to be in a much higher register in English. And it doesn’t help that, when we’re translating, we attempt to make explicit in the English what is implicit in the original. It’s hard to be as relatively casual as a skilled native-speaker can be in making their points, when you have to translate context as well as language. We trade off between making the language more formal to convey meaning, and leaving it less precise to convey style. It’s hard to match both, and we generally choose content over subtlety and nuance.

    The trouble is finding the right balance of register and language to match what Roland Barthes calls “the grain of the voice.” Which is hard enough even for people whose voices we have! How do you match the grain of Paul’s voice? And then that has to modulate over the range of styles and levels of discourse in an author’s oeuvre. But the trick is that Torrance and Bromiley and company are the standard voice of Barth in English. And they are that because they worked very hard to develop a consistent standard English Barth for their massive translation effort, and it worked rather well. But the result is backwards: it is the formalized published voice of the Dogmatics that then shapes the sound of the lectures and other shorter works. Which is simply an artifact of publication history, but if one were to do it over again, perhaps the sermons and lectures and correspondence ought to provide the basis for a Barth who is telling something to someone.

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  4. Put another way: the Dogmatics were given as lectures to students, but they were not published as textbooks. The informality of the lecture was sacrificed for the formality of the written word, but the formality of the school was also sacrificed for a public audience. We know that these were read by pastors and not just academic colleagues. Now, the average German-educated parish pastor then was a good bit better-trained than the average American-educated parish pastor today; I don’t mean we translate the Dogmatics into language suitable for Currents in Theology and Mission, for example. But the problem is related: the audience today is still not the same audience as Torrance and Bromiley and company wrote for, which was not the same as the audience that Barth wrote for. You’re never going to make the Dogmatics popular today the way they were popular at the time, for that reason alone! Only by translating everything can you start to make them accessible to a population that can’t be expected to know Latin and Greek. But I still get the feeling from what I know of the German reception history (mostly anecdotal, not something I’ve seen a study on, because who studies “reception history” for the original language?) that the English audience was more specialized and less general than the German-language one, especially “across the pond” in America.

    But that has much to do with the increasingly technical nature of Barth scholarship, even on the Dogmatics where the technical discussions are set in such a way that they can be skipped and the meaning still gained from the large print. Barth is a preacher writing for preachers, and his preachers were better trained than ours in a variety of ways, but he’s still writing for the public in ways that Barth scholarship generally isn’t, and in ways that the translation and transmission history—to America especially—makes problematic. Up slightly into an appropriate educated British register, and then across the pond … and largely unread, but heavily commented on, for decades!

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  5. Matt,

    Just real quickly (I’ll come back later and give more of a response). I fully understand your point about translation, I do know koine Greek and have done a lot of translation work therein (and I understand how you are using this as a corollary of the German tongue since both are part of the Indo/European language group); that makes sense.

    I also agree that the reception of Barth will be contexutally, culturally, and “periodally” different given all of the various factors you note.

    I think your greatest insight here is the development of Barthian studies, and how this has somewhat skewed Barth’s original resonance for pastors and spiritually astute Christians alike. Beyond that, the demonization of Barth, especially by North American Evangelical Pastors and Theologians has also muddied the waters in receiving Barth in the pastoral way he intended.

    At the end of the day, and personally, the reason I have been so attracted to Barth (and then Torrance—this is the order by which I came to Torrance, i.e. through Barth) is primarily because of the pastoral implications of his trajectory.

    More later. Thanks for your thoughts, Matt!

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