The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Saga and Miracle in the Post-Critical Bible Interpreter, Karl Barth

I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical barthyoungcriticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:

“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.[1]

Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,

the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.[2]

We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.

What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”[3]

I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging with in our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.


[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 125 fn. 27 kindle.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[3] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.


Written by Bobby Grow

September 23, 2015 at 8:51 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Well, here’s the question: is it possible for Humans to see the works and acts of God in time? Are we capable? There’s a difference between a noetic disconnect on account of sin, and the impossible-possibility of seeing with faith as a precondition to the creature’s creaturely existence. The latter seems to be Barth’s take (though it’s difficult to say).

    I think the Bible’s historicity is a condition of its claim. It makes no sense to sing praises to the creation and the redemption from Israel if it’s not grounded in history. Barth is trying to tackle the historical problem in general which plagued German academics (i.e. Lessing’s Ugly Ditch). It’s questionable whether he is able to do it, Pannenberg certainly criticized Barth for slipping into an ethereal, unreal historicity.

    The problem with NA evangelicalism is not that they take Bible historically, but because they don’t know how to read it as a spiritual text. They lack the richness of typology, allegory, and ‘totus christus’ ethics that the older church had maintained. It becomes merely an argument about history for them.

    Augustine in City of God deals with this issue between the Antiochene literalism and Alexandrian allegory. His answer should be our first step: why does one preclude the other?

    I know you said you agree with Barth ‘in principle’, so not exactly taking it all wholesale. But I thought I’d add in some 2 cents anyhow.




    September 24, 2015 at 5:23 am

  2. Cal,

    Yes, like I noted, Barth worked through Enlightenment Modernity not around it, or as if it never happened. I contend that NA biblical studies as a discipline (and its not that hard of a contention to establish) also works after and also from Enlightenment Modernity categories; which also is not hard to establish (Gerhard Hasel’s book on Old Testament Theology, even as an Intro does that quite well).

    So maybe the question for you is: “is it possible for Humans to see the works and acts of God in time? Are we capable?” But the answer to those questions has to do with precisely how far credence someone gives the development of historiography into the Modern and contemporary periods. And yes, Barth’s approach would be hitting Lessing’s ditch, but even more Kant’s style of dualism (by turning it on its head). Barth was responding to the whole higher critical program which entails a lot of voices. But even beyond that: Barth is saying that salvation-history and what we know of it is mediated, and it is mediated to us narratively in theological witness. He is not saying that the history born witness to is not representative of real ‘events’, but that our understanding of those in the whole sweep of His economy is contingent upon the Spirit giving us eyes of faith to be able to say that Jesus is Lord as disclosed in these events of salvation history.

    Cal you wrote: “There’s a difference between a noetic disconnect on account of sin, and the impossible-possibility of seeing with faith as a precondition to the creature’s creaturely existence.”

    So what’s the difference?

    And the reason NA evangelicals don’t know how to read the text theologically is because of what I already highlighted in the post.

    And I’ve studied the differences between Alexandrian and Antiochene hermeneutics theoria etc. But I’m not sure how this bears on Barth’s approach per se. Barth is a strong advocate for theological exegesis, but of course he gets there differently than Augustine or Theodore. I am a fan of theology of retrieval and ressourcement, but I see the whole sweep of church history (including the modern period) as open and available for that. I don’t think ignoring the Modern period does us much good since we live in its wake and are situated in it still even in its so called post-modern form.


    Bobby Grow

    September 24, 2015 at 5:02 pm

  3. The difference between a noetic effect of sin and a creaturely incapability is the difference in a doctrine of creation and man. This is the roots (I think) of what is happening in Barth’s attempt to wade through the historical question.

    I brought up Lessing’s Ugly Ditch because the knowledge of past-present knowability had plagued German intellectuals period. But what I’m more curious is the God-World relation in Barth’s historicity. I’d be curious to see more Hungsinger, but Pannenberg’s criticism (and it may be unwarranted) is that Barth has made the God-World relation ethereal. How far does the ‘non capax’ really go in Barth’s theology?

    Indulge me a little:

    It’s one thing to say a lack of faith from a sinful mind suppresses the witness of God (i.e. Mary must have screwed around with someone). It’s another thing that we’re incapable of seeing such works unless a miraculous intervention occurs.

    In one sense (and the truest sense), everything is grace. The creation being from nothing is a sheer gift. God sustaining our faculties is also a gift. But what then of the gift of faith? It’s not collapsible into merely an intellectual faculty. It’s not mere ‘belief’. It has a relational component. God seems to say that the Nations will see His Work of Salvation (i.e. delivering Israel from Egypt). Of course this doesn’t inspire obedience, even the demons believe and tremble. But when Peter believes, this is Peter not merely exercising his intellect, this perception is revealed from on High.

    So my question is here: would Barth say there’s a difference? If he was present at the ‘Red Sea’s’ Parting, would he see walls of water? Is a difference between seeing the work of God, even the person of God, and then a ‘friendship’/’relationship’ with God?

    Pannenberg was not anti-Barth or anti-Modern (maybe too Modern), but maybe he misunderstood him. Because for Pannenberg, it seems like salvation-history collapses into an existential experience for Barth, and is distinct from regular world history. Hunsinger seems to offer a wider reading. I guess I’m just wondering how Hunsinger dealt with the critiques of Barth, from both the orthodox and the liberal.

    For someone of a typical NA persuasion, I don’t know how this will convince them otherwise. The reason I brought up Alexandrian and Alexandrian because I want to say to the NA reader, yes you’re right, but the Biblical witness is greater. If it’s a question of historicity, I don’t know why we have to tell them they’re wrong, rather, they’re limiting approaches to the Biblical Text. If this is a God-World relation question, than that’s different (and what I rambled on about above).

    This isn’t antagonistic, I’m just trying to wrangle with this topic, and I want to keep interacting with Barth (and you). This isn’t an argument, just a dialog. Fides quarens intellectum?




    September 25, 2015 at 5:48 am

  4. Okay so at bottom: Yes, for Barth the events given witness to in Scripture are factual real life events and non-fiction (and I have it on good word that this is the way Hunsinger himself reads Barth here).

    It isn’t just Pannenberg who reads Barth the way you say he does, Van Til does as well among others. But that is not right. It isn’t that for Barth, as I understand him, that there is no particularity to the revelation of God, just the opposite. What Barth is doing is working from his anti-natural-theology mode and attempting to ensure that God’s Self revelation indeed is His. So the movement of knowing is first preceded by his Being/Ousia and not ours.

    Even on an regular evangelical reading of the Gospels for example, a regular evangelical would read the text with the understanding that the events being strewn together narratively are being interpreted from with the theological context of the kerygmatic event itself. What I see Barth doing, then, is providing critical depth for the evangelical to actually engage the text like they wished they always could but never could get to because their their theory of history etc is too mired down in the enlightenment shackles.

    And I don’t see a distinction between a doctrine of creation/man they are both in the realm of a doctrine of creation even if we can talk in a distinct way about an anthropology within that mode. I think the point is, for Barth (especially with his Covenantal understanding of things in the way he construes that i.e. the covenant God’s life of grace being the inner reality of creation itself which is its external expression so a theological realism), is that all of creation is preconditioned by the trajectory and objective reality of God’s life in the election of Jesus Christ. As such there is necessarily a theological sense to how we engage with and from His revelation (since revelation is reconciliation).


    Bobby Grow

    September 25, 2015 at 3:29 pm

  5. Well, Pannenberg and Van Til go about very differently in why they disagree with Barth. The former is more conciliatory, the latter antagonistic and condemning. The latter also being far too cerebral and systematic. Pannenberg thought Barth had a problem with dealing with history and gave in far too much to “liberal” criticism, Van Til thought Barth had bad systematic commitments that made him into a liberal existentialist despite his protesting. Van Til goes as far to say that even if Barth says he believes you would find an empty tomb, he can’t.

    I’m sure you already know this. I only bring it up because I’m astounded at Van Til’s inability to unlink theology from systematic commitments. Van Til has good apologetics with presuppositions and all. But wow, Westminster East has produced a lot of half-cocked arrogant people on account of him!

    I guess I’m not sure what you’re saying about Barth and history.

    Allow me to indulge in explaining what I understand and please correct me:

    Pannenberg’s way around this was looking at the problem backwards: the future is pulling us into it. Thus, we can understand the resurrection as a prolepsis, a flash forward. This event is what makes sense of the past, so the body of the church (i.e. the reality of Pentecost) is a constant revelation of the coming Eschaton, the reality of the Resurrection.

    The criticism is how Barth is exactly crossing the Ugly Ditch. Now Barth scholars have acknowledged that his pneumatology was an underdeveloped doctrine, and now the discussion is what direction to go based on his writings.

    Pannenberg gets around this as the Spirit is God drawing us into His Future reality. This sounds a little Hegelian, and this might be a problem with Hegel. But Pannenberg sees Barth’s ‘saga’ and the ontology of revelation as saying the play-out of salvation is something interior to God’s being.

    This makes it seem that none of it had to happen in ‘time’ because it has occurred in God’s very being. This is taking the ‘lamb slain before the foundation of the world’ in a very particular direction. The cross has already occurred before Jesus is nailed to it. Man accesses this by having the ‘existential’ break-through, initiated solely by God of course, into this eternal reality.

    This makes history into a haphazard. It’s why some Barthian students can break down regular history from salvation history. It’s a return of Schliermacher full force. So Israel doesn’t need to have escaped from Egypt in the way Scripture describes for them to appropriated a narrative of salvation.

    On a semi-related note, John Webster has pointed out that having the doctrine of salvation eclipse doctrine of creation (and not the former being a subset of the latter) you end up in dangerous fields. And I agree. It really doesn’t make sense that some BioLogos people can wax eloquent about the cross-and-resurrection and the salvation wrought by Christ, yet totally mythologize the creation account, relativize creation from nothing, allow ‘sin’ as an evolutionary by-product, and many other convoluted ideas that make redemption incoherent.

    I’m not saying Pannenberg is right, but I’ve been engaged in von Balthasar’s reading of Barth. Cards on the table, I believe in a chastened analogy of being. I expect to get Stephen Long’s book on von Balthasar and Barth in dialog, so it should be enlightening.




    September 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm

  6. Cal,

    I think things are getting over complicated here.

    I am aware of the differences between Pannenberg and Van Til (I’m even a friend with a PhD Van Tilian from WTS a couple of them actually).

    Professor Hunsinger actually emailed me the other day (which was quite the surprise, and very cool!) in regard to this post and what I shared about Barth holding to the events being actual, real, non-fictional real life events is what (according to Hunsinger’s confirmation) Barth held despite the caricatures and misreadings of him from folks like Pannenberg and Van Til et al.

    Instead of reinventing the wheel you should go and read my friend’s elucidation of this very issue in a post he wrote a couple of years ago. Here’s a snippet of what he wrote:

    The issue for Barth is not whether this event is historical, but whether it is accessible to us, and if so, how. According to Barth, revelation “does not become a predicate of history in that God reveals Himself through the medium of history. God remains ontologically distinct (or ‘other’) than the various media He takes up in revealing Himself.”3 One result of this is that the event of Jesus Christ is not subject to the control of historical-critical inquiry. (The distinction Barth makes between Historie and Geschichte, as well as his use of Saga and his relationship with Rudolf Bultmann, commonly lead his unsympathetic critics in the wrong direction — particularly when reading him uncarefully and in translation.) This is the problem of Gotthold Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” — that historical events are so remote from us today that we cannot trust that we really know about them with certainty. Where history is taken to be the sphere of God’s self-disclosure (as in Christianity), the problem diagnosed by Lessing becomes all the more acute.

    Read the full article here:

    and a related and subsequent post to the one I just linked here:

    These should answer your questions.


    Bobby Grow

    September 26, 2015 at 4:01 pm

  7. I’ve read that article before. It’s a fantastic tackling of Van TIl’s criticisms. But I re-read most of it for the sake of interacting.

    First let me say that I’m not calling into question your knowledge or your credibility by rehashing things. I’m doing it so what I know is on the table. Tone is difficult on the internet, so I’m trying to be explicit that this is not an argument where there is point-counterpoint. I am merely trying to explore this topic more. If you do not think this is what a blog is for, then forgive me and I won’t post anymore. I’m only hoping that between the two of us, I may understand better, even if we don’t learn anything new.

    I don’t understand how I’m making this complicated or trying to reinvent the wheel. But I will press on anyhow:

    I’m not in the corner for Pannenberg, but I respect him because he has serious concerns for history. Why he keeps coming up for me is he doesn’t understand how Barth really is able to get around the “Ditch”. Denying its existence is a way, but that doesn’t get around it.

    Barth talks of salvation-history as being revelatory. I’m still not sure about the ‘how’ and the distinctiveness between it and history, regular calendar time.

    Now, in my own words:

    So I can see that God’s identification, His revelation, in Time, marks it. It becomes ‘sacramental’. So in the worship of Israel, when their salvation is ‘remembered’ and ‘celebrated’, the Ditch is overcome because this sacramental ‘worm-hole’ is entered? In other-words, is the life, death, resurrection etc. of Christ closer in ‘time’ to today’s Eucharist celebration, or Wednesday’s street preaching etc. than say today’s date a year ago? So Barth is approving a sort of Spirit led sacramental ‘time’ that is promised and fulfilled? Therefore liturgy is a ‘repetition’ of Revelation because a past event comes to bear on us today? Revelation is more than a time in the past because the historical past is grounded in worship and practice today?

    If this is what Barth’s saying, I understand and agree. But, having given what I said above from the original blog post, we don’t need to criticize the NA ‘fundie’ for wanting to clearly say ‘this did happen in calendar-time history’. It’s rather we need to move past this, and get into a deeper discussion of liturgy, church practice, and preaching Christ. That’s what this has been all about anyway? If so, I understand (finally!)


    Pannenberg’s engagement as the Church was how can we speak with the wider, unbelieving world. Can we point at the presence and history of the Church as meaning anything in discussing with one who rejects the kerygma? This is where NA counterparts are weighed down. They are trying to argue with unbelievers why they are not unreasonable, and not merely restate the kerygma. I understand Paul did something of the sort (though not like them) on Mars Hill.

    However, I’ve wandered further off than the present discussion.




    September 27, 2015 at 1:09 pm

  8. Cal,

    I don’t think you have overly complicated it, per se. That wasn’t what I was getting at, really. I think though that the point of what I am saying and Hunsinger is is that for Barth the way Pannenberg and others have read Barth on history is a misunderstanding or misconstrual of what Barth actually meant.

    No I don’t really think Barth is ecclesiologically centered as you seem to be suggesting, or questioning. He sees things apocalyptically and that Jesus Christ is holding all things together in salvation history as He breaks in on it moment by moment afresh and aknew by the Holy Spirit. I don’t think Barth lives in a sacramental universe or church per se. Although that is not to say that He doesn’t have a place for church, of course he does Church Dogmatics. But it is to say that Barth doesn’t even think that the church itself possesses Christ (not through sacrament or what have you), but that Christ possesses His church and renews and encounters it through the written and preached Word (which is where sacrament if it does would come in for Barth I suppose).

    The NA Fundie should be criticized constructively because they have fallen prey to the type of naturalist historicism that Barth rightly repudiates. They still haven’t escaped it!

    And I just don’t think Christianity should be apologetic at all! That’s not to say we can’t engage in polemics, but when those polemics become the epistemological ground for how we do theology as Confessional Christians then we are no longer being Confessional Christians when we are doing theology we are being polemic Christians.

    I’m not a fan of Pannenberg’s general theory because he presses linear history in an absolute way. I think what Barth and even non-Barthians (see Matthew Levering) are emphasizing is that there is a both/and of participatory and linear history. Barth’s emphasis is participatory and apocalyptic which orients the linear in Christo-telic ways I guess we could say.


    Bobby Grow

    September 30, 2015 at 3:31 pm

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