The Lungs of Jesus Christ: Postcritical Theological Interpretation of Scripture contra the “Historical” Way

There are people who want to focus on what the Bible actually says, in the way that it says it; and there are people who want to focus on barthglasseswhat they think the Bible says according to their canons of extraneous criticism developed under the pressures provided by their peers. Karl Barth was a Dogmatic theologian and biblical exegete who wanted to focus on the former, on what the Bible actually says, according to its ordained conventions and reality found in Jesus Christ.

I have noticed, maybe you have too, a movement taking hold within a demographic of younger (as far as biological age) and even baby boomer Christians who in the past would have identified as evangelical Christians, but who are now more in step with what has loosely been called ‘Progressive’ Christianity. But it isn’t just this demographic, it is also the tribe I grew up in; dispensationalists are just as participatory in this process of reading the Bible through prefabricated rules developed from a historist approach toward the Bible. We could blame all of this on an uncritical (or maybe even a critical) appropriation of Enlightenment engagement of Scripture, which indeed, focuses on the formation of the canon of Scripture, and its text latent contours through criteria that are external to Scripture itself. One consequence of this is that those who follow this trajectory end up having ongoing discussions about the Bible, but never really engage with the material theological content of the Bible. The Bible gets reduced to a text that is useful for reconstructing the history of religions, but not useful for encountering the living God reported upon within its pages (and its special history relative to its reality found in Jesus Christ).

George Hunsinger, a Karl Barth scholar, professor par excellence at Princeton Theological Seminary has written about how Barth worked as a postcritical interpreter of Scripture; recognizing that the critical scholarship I was speaking about above has its place, but it really isn’t all that enlightening toward actually engaging with the text of Scripture – whose context is ultimately the Triune life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Here is Hunsinger:

As understood by Barth, the function of biblical criticism was mostly preliminary (NS, 233). It pertained to history in them modern sense of the term. It allowed various elements of the texts to be distinguished, whether they be historical, or legendary, or conflations of past and present occurrences. Critical distinctions like these had to be made. But after they were made, wrote Barth, “they can be moved again into the background, and the whole [text] can be read, with this tested, critical naïveté, as the totality it professes to be” (IV/2, 479 rev.).

Historical and non-historical elements flow together at this point (cf. III/1, 80-81). Verifying the miracles historically ceases to be of great importance. What matters is the sort of events being reported: events that are incomparable and mysterious. “The ill-advised hunt for a historical truth supra scripturam [prior to Scripture] is called off,” wrote Barth, “in favor of an open investigation of the veritas scripturae ipsuis [the truth of Scripture itself]” (I/2, 494 rev.). What emerges as the sole object of exegesis, from a theological standpoint, is the texts themselves. No other option makes sense if the following is true: “Revelation stands, no, it happens, in the Scriptures,” wrote Barth, “and not behind them. It happens. There is no way around this in the biblical texts – in their actual words and sentences – given what the prophets and the apostles, as witnesses to revelation, wanted to say and have said.”

Theological exegesis is determined by this picture of the attested events (NS, 234). It tries to respect what it finds in the texts. It operates with a hermeneutic that allows them to correct our ordinary picture of what is and is not possible.

Scriptural exegesis rests on the assumption that the message which Scripture has to give us, even in its apparently most debatable and least assimilable parts, is in all circumstances truer and more important than the best and most necessary things that we ourselves have said or can say. In that Scripture is the divinely ordained and authorized witness to revelation, it entails a claim to be interpreted along these lines; and if this claim be not duly heeded, it remains at bottom inexplicable. (I/2, 719 rev.)[1]

A baby boomer scholar who is very popular among the progressive Christians, Peter Enns, just recently wrote this on his Facebook wall: “If I hear one more Enlightened One claim that source criticism of the Pentateuch is dead and buried and has been replaced by literary analysis, I am going to file a lawsuit for academic slander.” Enns is someone who is doing a good job revivifying something that I think Barth believes should be in the background, and not at the forefront of how exegesis of the text of Scripture ought to proceed. I am with Barth.

Hey, if you want to spend your time engaging in the never ending process of source, form, and redaction criticism, when doing Bible study, done under a naturalist-historist mode of operation that is up to you! But if you want to actually encounter the living Word of God in Scripture, then I suggest you accept Barth’s invitation to feast at the banqueting table of Holy Scripture and its compelling and breathing reality found from the lungs of Jesus Christ. Let Scripture impose its special and strange, and even foolish reality upon you, instead of you imposing your reality upon it.

[1] George Hunsinger, “Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation: Rudolf Smend on Karl Barth,” in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012) ed. George Hunsinger, 42.

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7 comments

  1. I agree, of course. But, it’s worth noting that Enns is right…about the continuing dominance of source criticism. He is definitely right that many evangelicals have hailed “literary criticism” or “rhetorical criticism” (or whatever other “post-criticism”) as the successor to the hegemony of source criticism. That is wrong. Source criticism has not gone anywhere, even as it is supplemented by literary criticism. If anything, the SBL guild is more skeptical now than ever. The old guard (Westermann, von Rad, Noth, etc.) believed that certain texts could have originated as early as the monarchy, with oral forms earlier and providing some measure of genuine historicity. Today, nothing at all is known about anything prior to the exile. Exodus, conquest, and the monarchies are all subject to imaginative and ideological reconstructions, projecting experiences of exile and post-exile rebuilding. You can watch Christine Hayes’ OT survey course at Yale for free on YouTube. She does an excellent job explaining the mainstream liberal perspective, and the Documentary Hypothesis is alive and well. I disagree with the bulk of everything that Hayes says, but it is worthwhile to know where she stands, which is where both the academy and mainline/liberal Protestantism stand.

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  2. Kevin,

    I don’t disagree, at all, that Enns is absolutely right; in fact I think I said as much. I just don’t agree with reading the Bible that way through that lens as its primary way into the text. I like the idea of Barth’s critical naivete or secondary naivete in engaging the text as it stands; this fits better with Childs’ approach, which I am a bigger fan of than the dominate liberal approach (that still breathes … no doubt about that!)

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  3. It’s a pleasure to see two of my favorite bloggers ‘on the same page.’ Bobby and Kevin are uniquely qualified to comment to this reaction to Bobby’s OP. Perhaps they will.

    In a few sciences that I follow, books and peer-reviewed journals have been left behind for working papers, free online journals, and blogs. On the free side of pay walls, you can see how e.g. macroeconomics exemplifies a practice in which the sharp minds engage each other online quite often, often discussing research still in progress, and release their results as papers posted online. Only for archival purposes do they publish with a tree-slayer, although those archival purposes do include giving committees and deans something to count for promotion and tenure. What forced this pattern was an analogous situation in which an academic rearguard closed itself off from the best new work, and by controlling the major paper journals, made them irrelevant to fresh work.

    Reading Bobby’s fine posts on the theological reading of scripture, I am surprised that this renewed practice is not taking shape primarily online. (eg “How do you construe the individual and corporate aspects of the christology of Daniel 7? I think…”) Indeed, I propose that it should do so whenever I can. It would be better to see online collaboration in theological reading than to wait for an entrenched profession to turn its journals, etc over to theological readers who want to publish.

    A final thought. Online publication is not quite free, but it can be very cheap. Do we not owe it to Christians in the developing world to make this as close to free as we can?

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  4. Thank you, Bowman! Are you proposing that we start an online journal :-)? I think maybe a site that indexes the best of theological blogs (and biblical studies) might be something to think about. Although that takes time, and effort. I am not sure I have that at the moment. I am trying to write two chapters within the next year for our next edited EC volume, and edit the rest of the chapters (along with Myk).

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  5. Thank you for entertaining the idea, Bobby.

    “Are you proposing that we start an online journal :-)?”

    At the very least. But the best way to start most things these days is by thinking big, conducting small but revealing experiments, and connecting the successes into something that can work.

    “…a site that indexes the best of theological blogs (and biblical studies)…”

    The index itself is just a small project. If one sticks to the theological reading of scripture there are not that many voices discussing it online. Arguably, we first need an index of indices.

    It is almost a bigger project to define what we (do not) mean by theological reading.

    A site that publishes it in a way that attracts sustained interest and support is the sort of thing that requires imaginative connecting of dots.

    A serious question is– who is the constituency for this sort of reading and what do we know about it?

    Kevin, what think you?

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