Scripture, Open for Business: Knowledge of God in Christ and Scripture in Circular Dialogue

I have been struggling with a hermeneutical tension for a while now, especially since I have become exposed more and more to Barth (and even Torrance). Although I would lay the blame with this tension more on my own bible1predisposition rather than at the feet of either Barth or Torrance. And in fact maybe the real cause for my hermeneutical tension has been how Barthians (in general) appear to shutdown engagement with scripture in favor of a prior centraldogma commitment to a christology that somehow drops from heaven without scripture; as if scripture can somehow be decentralized from the only ordained place of God where he has chosen to disclose his Son to us through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and illumination. In other words, there seems to be a proclivity among Barthians to shut down exegetical discussion (and I know there are exceptions to this trend … Matt Frost is an exception), in favor of dogmatic reflection; as if the latter can somehow be developed without intricate dependence on the former. This is a lacunae for me that must be filled; in other words, that’s not a liveable posture for me. As an Evangelical (still), scripture has to take pride of place; and sound exegetical practice must inform the categories by which we proceed as theological exegetes. It is not enough to assert a depth dimension of hermeneutics without moving beyond that into what that actually means and looks like in exegetical practice. Does the text itself get to have any implicit say in the way it ought to be interpreted literarily, socio-culturally, theologically; or do Dogmatic theologians get to construct the (Christological) categories that we then bring to the text as its interpretive control? I have had the distinct sense over the last few years—indeed, a sense of loss at some level—that Scripture has lost its central place in my own personal praxis as a Christian person. I don’t lay this blame squarely at Barth’s feet, Torrance’s, or even their followers (of whom I am one); but at the same time, I would also assert that this sense, this feeling of loss (for me) has not simply materialized out of thin air. It is not enough to assert that Scripture is a central place for Barth (and indeed in his way, it was for him … just look at the voluminous citation of scripture through his CD), there needs to be an actual ongoing and material engagement with it (not just incidental or simple proof texting here and there).

Upon further reflection (as I sit here and write this), part of my personal problem[s] (which are legion 😉 ) might not be as much with what I sense as a deemphasis upon Scripture by Barth and Torrance; in fact it might be an issue with the way the disparate parties (me juxtaposed with Barth and Torrance) interpret Scripture itself. Another thing to consider is that both Barth and Torrance were not, by discipline, Biblical Studies guys, per se; but instead, they were, obviously, Christian Dogmaticians. My own predisposition, while drinking freely from the Dogmatic fount, is still much more Biblical Studies in orientation. So maybe my problem simply arises from this distinction alone. But I don’t really think so; I think that for Barthians, Torrancians, and Calvinians (for that matter), in general, there can be the potential to move and breath without Scripture’s disclosure as primary to understanding who Christ is.

In the following, Francis Watson is responding to E. P. Sanders, and Sanders’ approach to hermeneutics (and Paul). Watson’s critique of Sanders is that Sanders’ Christology shuts down, instead of opens up dialogue with Scripture as primarily informative for presenting the categories through which God in Christ is known. Watson intones in regard to Sanders’ approach this way:

[T]he implication here is that Paul’s disagreement with Judaism derives from a christological conviction that is self-grounded and self-sufficient, and that the pervasive appeal to scripture is merely a secondary consequence of that primary conviction. In this account, the relationship between christology and scripture is a unilateral one: christology determines how scripture is read, but christology itself is not itself determined by the reading of scripture. In the last resort, that would mean that scripture is dispensable for Paul. His christology stands or falls on its own account, irrespective of whether it issues in plausible readings of scripture. It is only his polemical or apologetic concerns that lead him into extensive exegetical engagement, forcing him to defend his christological conviction on ground less than ideal for his purposes. If the light that illumines Paul shines upon scripture only from the outside, then the formal possibility of dialogue on scriptural terrain will remain unrealized and Pauline exegesis will be no more than a secondary application of Pauline dogmatism….[Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, 16.]

So in an applied way, my concern is Watson’s with Sanders; except I am applying my cross-hairs towards Barth and Torrance (and their students, myself included—so I am being self-critical at some level), and their kind of Christological dogmatism. I think Watson’s critique is presciently applicable in the way I am appropriating it. For Barth and Torrance as Dogmaticians, they are concerned with providing a proper ontology for Scripture; which means they are seeking to present a properly theologically oriented order to where Scripture finds its voice relative to the giver of Scripture, God in Christ—with this I have no quarrel, indeed, I heartily recommend their trajectory (especially as it is taken up by John Webster!). But my concern is that this kind of necessary backgrounding work is made the foreground; meaning that this kind of undergirding theological order begins to preclude the integrity of Scripture’s own dialectical voice in relation to its giver. That when the background of Scripture becomes the foreground (hermeneutical theory and exegetical practice), that Scripture’s inter-relation with its reality becomes marganlized to a point that it is secondary (and thus really has no voice)—and what becomes primary in its place are the machinations of particular Dogmaticians (i.e. not just Barth, Torrance, Calvin, but any other Dogmatician … you fill in the blank). I think this has been the source of my feeling of loss; I cannot countenance the notion that Scripture is in anyway secondary to who I know God in Christ to be. And I can’t live having one Dogmatician, or another telling me what the proper Christological categories must be (based on their prior constructive work); I am way too Protestant for that (and Trad, still)!

Without futher ado (and as usual, this post has run much longer than I had intended … I still need to read my Bible for goodness sake!), here is how Watson responds to what he senses as Sanders’ shutting down of dialogue with Scripture; as a result of Sanders’ (Watson thinks) misreading of Paul’s own approach to doing Dogmatic theology, in particular, Christology. Here is Watson (,I presume 😉 ):

[F]or Paul, it is more important that scripture should shed light on Christ than that Christ should shed light on scripture. Paul has no independent interest in the meaning of scripture as such: the meaning of scripture is identical to its significance, and both are to be found in its manifold, direct and indirect testimony to God’s saving action in Christ. Scripture is not a secondary confirmation of a Christ-event entire and complete in itself; for scripture is not external to the Christ-event but is constitutive of it. Paul proclaims not a pure, unmediated experience of Christ, but rather a Christ whose death and resurrection occur “according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15.3-4). Without scripture, there is no gospel; apart from the scriptural matrix, there is no Christ. The Christ who sheds light on scripture is also and above all the Christ on whom scripture simultaneously sheds its own light. In Galatians 3, for example, Paul does not simply assert that scripture must be read differently in the light of Christ, so as to refute opponents who appeal to scripture on their own ground. Rather, Paul’s rereading of scripture is determined by his single apostolic preoccupation with the Christ-event, which must be interpreted through the lens of the scriptural witness.

If there is no unilateral imposition of christological meaning onto scripture, and if the relationship of Christ and scripture is a circular one, then the possibility is reopened of dialogue with scripture, and with others about scripture…. [Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, 16-17.]

I don’t think it is either Barth’s or Torrance’s intent to shutdown engagement with Scripture; nevertheless, I do think, that at points, their reception has indeed had this effect on many of their students. So instead of discussing the actual Christology of the text of scripture we end up discussing accretions of Barthian, Torrancian (or whomever) Dogmatic/Christological development; or we end up scholastically bereft of the text of Scripture (ad fontes), and left with the heft of theological tradition.

I am sure that I am overstating things to some degree; but I am just being open and honest with where I am at personally with my own approach to appropriating the genius insights of Barth, Torrance, and any other Dogmatist out there. sola scriptura, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria!



  1. Can you give examples of how or when you feel your dogma is crowding out exegesis?
    I’ve always been suspicious of Torrance as an exegete, but to his credit, I found his Atonement to be heavily weighted with exegesis, albeit with an outdated model of word study.


  2. Andrew,

    Not off the top. I didn’t necessarily say that I felt that my dogma was crowding my exegesis; instead, I am noting what I think can be a consequent of being too committed to a Dogmatic Christology that is not also an Exegetical one. So I am simply engaging in some description of what I can see as fall out from what might be a preclusion with actual engagement with the text of scripture (just as my post develops further).

    I am not sure TFT gives enough exegesis in order for me to necessarily be suspicious of, per se (of his actual exegesis, since I have not ever seen him do much of that–like in commentary form). But I am talking about what Watson is; as if we can construct a Christological lens that is independent of the text of scripture; or that serves as a canon by itself.


  3. I’m glad to be a noted exception to the trend. 🙂 Of course, I’m an outsider, and was already my own kind of Barthian by the time I discovered the PTS folks and their idiosyncrasies, as well as the whole field of work devoted to arguing for and against them.

    I will of course note that Barth taught courses in the NT books right along with his theology lectures and seminars. The remains of them are well worth reading. But I will also quickly move on to Watson.

    I find it hard to take seriously words like “Paul’s disagreement with Judaism,” unless we mean by them something like “Barth’s disagreement with Christianity.” It takes little analysis to realize that Paul is using Judean scripture as proof, in Judean terms, to gentilic audiences—who must therefore be familiar with the material, enough that it can serve as persuasive rhetorical proof for Paul’s arguments! For this reason, I feel like Watson and Sanders are simply opposite ends of the pendulum swing, and risk missing the point in both directions. If we cannot say that scripture and God’s self-revelation in history clarify one another, how shall we balance them?

    And yet at this end of time it is absolutely necessary that we subordinate scripture to the God to whom it bears witness as a secondary effect. It is important that scripture not be primary, except as it points outside itself to God. This is why, as Barth develops his epistemology of the Word of God, scripture is the standard to which our proclamation is held, but God is the standard to which scripture is held—lest we make of it something that it is not, simply because the right words are there to support some other idea we may have.


  4. Matt,

    I have no devotion to Watson, and from what I know of him and Sanders I agree with you.

    It is your last paragraph—something that I don’t disagree with at all!, and that I have argued for more than once here at the blog and other places—that I want to engage further. Indeed, this is really the occasion of this rather verbose post. What I was trying to get at through this post is exactly what you have stated; that for Barth, Torrance and that whole trajectory, scripture is necessarily secondary. I don’t have any problem with that. My concern, though, by virtue of scripture being seen as secondary, is that it is seen as secondary; and thus not seriously engaged on its own terms. I sometimes get the impression that scripture (from “our” trajectory—although you and I appropriate Barth differently here, and our theory of interpretation is at odds, I think) simply becomes the place where Christology is abstracted, and once it has been abstracted (the kernel), then the husk of scripture can simply be discarded and we can get on with it. Matt, you have to admit that you have seen Barthians (and not just Barthians, but other Dogmatic types) do this over and again with Scripture (a rather Modern exercise). And really this is all I am griping about. I note you as an exception because you engage with Scripture more than any other Barthian I have ever come across (even if I don’t always agree with your methodological starting points, which we have already discussed before)—Hunsinger’s recent edited book and Barth and Scripture have given me more hope! And I am well aware of Barth’s numerous commentaries; Barth isn’t really the problem so much, it is the Barthians (the young ones 🙂 ).

    Anyway, I just needed to get this post off my chest. I am still dyed in the wool Torrancian (and Barthian insofar that Torrance is 😉 ), and I wouldn’t want this post to make anyone think otherwise. I just was in a lamenting mood :-). Thanks, Matt!


  5. Yes. The trouble, I might say, isn’t with Barth’s understanding that scripture must be treated secundum Deum, but with the corresponding idea of our proclamation (our theology, that is) necessarily being treated as secundum scripturam. Theology is not immediately secundum Deum, nor can it be. But we might like to think otherwise, to think that we can do the apologetic task of omnia tractare sub ratione Dei because we have reached a point at which we actually understand the ratione Dei. In practice, it’s really not so much hubris as what Kuhn calls work within a paradigm, but the feet of that paradigm always need to be held to the fire. It cannot simply be assumed that the paradigm is scripturally sound.

    Yesterday, someone asked me whether I hadn’t naturally come to find Pannenberg and Brunner more useful than Barth when it comes to ecological theology. (This is because I work for an archive of materials related to Joseph A. Sittler, a mid-20th-century theologian who is at present most remembered for his attention to “ecology,” though he is far more useful than that—he’s an American P. T. Forsyth, in many ways. But I field a lot of ecology questions because of it.) Anyways, you know my answer was no! 🙂 But I think one of the keys to the reason why is that both Brunner and Pannenberg are doing work within paradigms that I find problematic, and mostly because of their lack of deep attentiveness to scripture. For Barth, it is all moved by the “new world” within the Bible. I am drawn most to theologians for whom the total system of dogmatic and apologetic work is thoroughly integrated with exegetical work. I would rather read exegetes who don’t advance far enough theologically, than theologians who do not reach back far enough exegetically!


  6. Theological teachings and opinions (doctrinae and dogmata) are the leaves and fruit of a tree. You know that it is a dead tree if it does not produce them! But you also know that they are not the tree itself, and that when they fall away in every season, the tree will produce more, so long as it lives.


  7. I sympathize with your concern, Bobby, yet I wonder how this actually works. What kind of exegesis are we talking about, after all? Historical-critical? canonical? literary? dogmatic? etc., etc. What are we really asking of the theologian?


  8. Father, I would say “collegiality and humility.” Because the only correct answer to which mode of critical scholarship is “all of them.” And also “none of them.” The theologian, of all people, must be most critical in her use of scripture, and most attentive, in order to say something that is faithful to our best knowledge of scripture today.


  9. Fr Kimel,

    I agree with what Matt just said; and attitude is the key that holds exegesis together; a very moral affair it is.

    And Matt nice tree/leave/fruit analogy; couldnt agree more!


  10. I do not, of course, disagree with you, Matt and Bobby. But if attitude and faith is what we are talking about, then I do not know how one can be concerned with the exegesis of, say, TFT. TFT’s faith was deep and personal (as I can attest by private conversations and correspondence with him) and profoundly informed by his life-long reading of the Scriptures. He certainly believed that his theology was biblical through and through. So besides simply telling him that you disagree with one or more points of his theology, what else would you say to him? (I know what I might say to him; but I suspect it’s quite different than what you might say.)


  11. Fr Kimel,

    I cant say there is anything I disagree with Toorance over theologically; that isnt what I have been saying, not in the post or any of my comments thus far. My point as I already clarified with Matt is that the Barthian tradition could tend to de-emphasize engagement with scripture because of its secondary placement; and that I have observed this kind of de-emphasis among some of Barthians today.

    I do not know how you have concluded that I am challenging either Barth or Torrance’s personal theology from anything I have written thus far; I am not! If I am critiquing anything at all is that there seems to be lack of care among those, like myself, who have adopted the Barthian scrptural tradition (not Barth, but those who are Barthians).

    I am not repudiating my association with Barth or Torrances theology whatsoever! I am thinking self critically and personally from within; I am trying to be constructive and not stagnant.


  12. Bobby, I was just using the example of Torrance as a test case. I wasn’t suggesting that you were repudiating him or Barth or whomever. So substitute someone else, if you prefer. But I thought TFT might be a good theologian to use as a test case, because sometimes it’s difficult to see in TFT’s writings how exegesis supports his theology. Indeed, it may well be the case that his theology, on specific points stands, even if his exegesis of a particular biblical text is wrong.

    What I am trying to suggest is that it is no easy think to connect biblical exegesis, particularly given all the different kinds of exegesis, with our “finished” theologies.


  13. Yes, that is true, Fr. Kimel; it is a very dynamic situation. But all I am suggesting is that we should try harder. What I am noticing is that many, from what I have observed, don’t even try. I am saying we should try!


  14. And I was also saying that the Barthian approach offers a unique challenge for motivating this kind of trying. Juxtaposed that is with classically Reformed and Evangelical approaches to scripture and hermeneutics; which is my background and personal experience.


  15. And then there is at some point a need for the theologians to have their thoughts relayed to lay people (like me!) who need to see how scripture actually supports the thelologian’s theology, otherwise it is all ivory tower. This is also important because we all have a theology (often bad) from which we view scripture, whether we know it or not – especially folks that say “The Bible says it, I believe it, ‘Nuff said!” The scripture is visible to us; many times our thelogy is subliminal – we need for theologians to start where we are somewhat aware – in the scriptures – and help us make sense of them. For me, theology magnifies the scriptures instead of demoting them.


  16. Jerome,

    I agree with you. I am having a hard time doing that though. I mean it is easy with the blog, but most encounters I have in person (with Christians) don’t seem to be with people who are really that interested in getting into deeper theology. There is more of an obsession, it seems, with private spirituality V. global Christianity and its ideas (as if the latter does not logically implicate the former).

    You are unique :-)! And I would say most people who spend consistent times reading or writing theology blogs are representative of a small band of people in the midst of the broader body of Christ; for better or worse (I think the better!).


  17. Anonymous, I didn’t remove any comments from this thread; they must not have come through. What is your name? Let me look to see if for some reason they went into my spam folder, but, no, I never removed any comments from this thread.


  18. btw i just sent an email too. How do I log in to this site? (i am at church and not at home and I get a warning every time I try (my computer thinks wordrag is a virus waiting to happen) might have to fix my firewall I will keep trying.


  19. You shouldn’t have to login, it sounds like your computer at church might be hyper sensitive or something; I don’t know. I’ll check my email.


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