Trying to Clarify My ‘Kind’ve’ Barthian Theory of History [and everything else] Juxtaposed with a Wrightian Biblicism

Let me post a long comment I made on my friend’s wall, Lawrence Garcia, on barthderspiegelFacebook; the comment is seeking to clarify a problem that I perceive is present in N.T. Wright’s kind of biblicism and historicism:

@Larry, let me clarify a few things:

1) I have never claimed (in fact the opposite) that I don’t read Scripture w/o as you say ‘extra-canonical presuppositions’, my point is different, actually.

2) Barth’s usage of historical criticism would not end up with NT Wright’s usage of it; in fact Barth actually uses historical criticism against historical criticism. Meaning that for him historical criticism actually implodes upon itself terminating in the dogmatic and theological realities of the text (the living Word of God) behind the text (the written and proclaimed word of God). Here is how TF Torrance describes Barth’s prolegomena/hermeneutic:

**Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ. [Thomas F. Torrance, “Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931,” 196]**

So the way Barth uses historical criticism is not in a naturalist way (pace Wright), but an intentionally and principial christological way, as if redemptive history’s inner reality is God’s life [the Covenant] (so a theologically rich and dogmatic way) of which creation becomes the outer expression. If anything, Barth’s usage of historical criticism might terminate in Brevard Childs or Hans Frei (but even these guys are too ecclesiocentric for Barth’s approach, ultimately). Anyway, to appeal to Barth’s historical criticism and its application actually supports what I am getting at and not what you appear to be, Larry.

redwright3) Larry, I ask the “so what” not to register disagreement (per Hector’s perception) so much, or as if I don’t understand how NPPr’s answer that, but I, in this instance I use it rhetorically to make a larger point, and that is; so how is someone supposed to move from a discipline (history) that is by definition “descriptive” to a discipline that is by definition for Christians “prescriptive” and “constructive” (theology)? Are we just simply able to read off of what “is” (historical and naturalist reconstruction) and convert that into what “ought” to be/or is (theological and dogmatic construction)? As I read what Wright & co. are attempting, their answer to my question resides in a usage of Scripture that is *solo scriptura* (V. sola scriptura), and the method for moving from “is” to “ought” is a self-directed natural theological approach, and thus one that it is not driven by a chastened Christian belief that accurate reconstruction of history (as if history itself is “Revelation” as if there is a ‘pure nature’) cannot really be done given the noetic effects of the Fall and the ‘darkening’ that that has cast, like a shadow, upon our capacities to know God. I don’t see Wright attending to this issue at all in his method, and so this is why his “theological/exegetical” conclusions are highly suspect to me. This is why Barth, Torrance & co. press the idea that *Revelation “is” Reconciliation”, because outwith, there is no possible or natural way to access a pure kind of history [which is a myth V. mythos] that might ultimately terminate in providing meaningful revelational truth. As my friend Darren Sumner has written about Barth in this regard:

**… God does not relate to time in the same way that creatures relate to time. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ relates to time from the eternal point of view — that of the Creator; and as Son of Man, we might say that his relation to time is “temporally determined.” The sense in which Jesus Christ is “before Adam” is not as the Logos incarnatus or ensarkos but as the Logos incarnandus — that is, in the mode of anticipation of the incarnation that takes place in time. This is real for the being of the eternal Son — but it is not so without the corresponding moment of its actualization. With respect to revelation, then, because God is its subject it must come into history from without.**

So because I reject natural theology (and affirm what Barth in reified form has called an analogy of faith/relation), then I ultimately must reject NT Wright & co’s. movement from their descriptive historical work to their theological/exegetical conclusions. That said, I don’t fully reject Wright’s (et al) work, in the sense that as a historian he incidentally is uncovering some very helpful and fruitful lines of inquiry that have theological import. But because I don’t accept the kind of anthropology that funds Wright’s approach about “Revelation” and our capacity to access it, then I will remain critically suspect of his work and theological conclusions because I disagree with his apparent theory of revelation (and thus his doctrine of Scripture and subsequent ontology of Scripture), and the confidence he has in our kind of “natural” capacity to read revelation directly off of the pages of a tenuously shaped reconstruction of history.

4) Furthermore, I don’t see either Barth or Torrance stuck in the 20th century, per se; I see them as intentionally and critically engaging with the Tradition of the Christian church (from the 20th century to be sure!), based upon an ideal and their belief that God has spoken and continues to speak right throughout the history of His church (so this includes the 1st century a.d. right through the Patristic, Medieveal, Reformational, Modern, etc. periods). And I see Wright cutting most of this heritage off when he writes things like this:

**Second, I take care precisely NOT to ‘fault’ the great creedal tradition. I use the two classic creeds in my regular prayers and worship – in the Anglican manner: the Apostles’ Creed every day, and the Nicene Creed at the Sunday Eucharist. (Just as they do at Calvin, of course.) The creeds are not the ‘villains’. They were not written to provide a teaching syllabus. They are the symbol, the badge, the list of things that were controversial early on which the church had to hammer out. The problem comes – and at what point in church history this occurred I couldn’t say, that not being my period – when the creeds are used as teaching outlines; because of course they skip precisely over the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels, and thereby, quite accidentally and non-villainously, collude with a quite different movement, with which many of my readers tell me they are all too familiar: a form of Christianity in which it would be quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, died on a cross and never done anything in between. The rise of such a truncated form of Christianity is not at all (I suggest) the fault of the wonderful and beloved Creeds, but of quite different movements which have then (ab)used them as a teaching outline which has reinforced (quite accidentally in terms of the Creeds’ original purpose) the omission of the kingdom of God as a present reality. In other words, I not only don’t reject Nicene Christianity, I embrace it, affirm it, love it, live it, and pray it. But the best sort of Nicene Christianity has always insisted that you read the gospels themselves, and indeed pray the Lord’s Prayer, and that these are just as important for shaping who we are in Christ as the formulaic creeds themselves. They weren’t intended to ‘cover all the bases’, and to use them as though they were is, however subtly, to misuse them. And what then happens is a form of ‘Christianity’ from which the main thing Jesus himself was doing and talking about has quietly been removed or hushed up. Very convenient, of course, especially after the Enlightenment.**

So Wright, in my view, gives lip service to these creeds (because he must), but does not see them as providing serious theological grammar for helping us actually understand who God is, and thus helping us to engage with the theological implications of the text of Scripture (and I should say that both Barth and Torrance only critically receive the creeds themselves, in fact Barth critiques and moves beyond them at points, but in actual conversation with them). So, I don’t really see an “catholic” appreciation, in actual mode and practice, in Wright; this gets back to my earlier point on “solo scriptura”.

Conclusion) With all of the above noted, ultimately, it isn’t that I don’t think Wright is not making some important material historical findings relative to clearly articulating the Gospel (i.e. like I think the idea of an emphasis on corporate salvation is important); my issue with Wright is that he really does cut off and even pooh-pooh the teachings of the church catholic (especially for people who un-critically sit at his feet), except for the fact (as I read him) that he offers a charitable gesturing towards it when he must. I think Wright should definitely be included in the ongoing conversation that God is having with His people, the church. But I don’t think Wright is the latter day prophet and thus dominating voice (nor his tribe) that many seem to think (and for some of the reasons I have noted above).

Barth and Torrance definitely have some problems of their own, but I think that their general critique of natural theology as applied to Christian theological/exegetical conclusions is spot on. So in the end, maybe some of my misgivings with Wright are more of an ultimate (methodological) concern V. a proximate one, relative to some of the interesting historical things he is uncovering.

I should also clarify, beyond what I wrote to Larry; I am still on the way here, or in short, I am still processing and learning myself. But the above represents the way I have been processing now for the last few years, at least. Although, how self-consistent I am with what I sketch above, in regard to Barth’s approach, is hard to say, at points.

This entry was posted in Hermeneutics, Karl Barth, N.T. Wright. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Trying to Clarify My ‘Kind’ve’ Barthian Theory of History [and everything else] Juxtaposed with a Wrightian Biblicism

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Bobby, have you read Wright’s *The New Testament and the People of God*? Though it’s been years since I last read it, I remember thinking that his critical realist approach showed strong similarities to Torrance’s approach to the reading of Scripture.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Fr Kimel,

    Half of it, probably six years ago. I need to finish it someday. I’ve read other things from Wright though, and listened to multiple lectures from him. He is similar to TFT in his critical realism, but in prolegomena and sophistication in this area I see divergence between the two, divergence that results in disparate material conclusions theologically. That said, in some ways they are similar; I can see a fruitful discussion possible between TFT’s Christ conditioned view of election and Wright’s understanding of Covenant.


  3. Pingback: A Mini-Paper in Rough-draft Form: Rapproachment Between Biblical Studies and Systematic [Dogmatic] Theology | The Evangelical Calvinist

Comments are closed.