Barth’s Five Warnings on Philosophy and Biblical Exegesis: Scripture Alone is Domina

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy engages with Barth’s “five points” or as Oakes calls them “five warnings” for how to use barthstampphilosophy in Biblical exegesis. I thought it would be instructive to survey what Oakes writes as he engages Barth in this way. We will read what Oakes writes on this at some length, and then I will offer my own reflection and engagement with Oakes’ engagement with Barth.

Barth offers five ‘points’ to remember in the use of philosophy within exegesis, but one might as well call them five ‘warnings.’ (1) The interpreter of Scripture ‘must have a fundamental awareness of what he is doing.’ ‘Awareness’ does not mean compiling a list of hermeneutical influences or a constant reflexive monitoring between reading Scripture and reflecting upon oneself reading Scripture. The issue is one of humility, which in this context means acknowledging that every philosophy is different from and inadequate for reading Scripture. Prior notions of human agency, the good life, moral obligations, and the fundamental nature of being are not just different from those in Scripture, but they actively prevent hearing the Word. (2) The presupposed philosophy can only be a hypothesis. While the text must be approached with assumptions, reading Scripture requires a willingness to alter these commitments in order to hear the Word. More problematic than the unsuitable nature of one’s presuppositions is ‘false asceticism,’ when one abandons the task entirely either out of despair or fails to bring the whole of oneself and one’s philosophy to this task. One thus should not forbid exegetical attempts undertaken by others with differing philosophies. As one’s reading   possesses the character of a hypothesis or essay, one must be prepared to change one’s own thought forms and philosophies, perhaps even converting to a different philosophy in the process. (3) The philosophy used for interpreting Scripture cannot be given independent consideration or become an end in itself. Such an interest might overwhelm the actual endeavor at hand: the interpretation of Scripture. Barth is not finally uninterested in the tools brought forward, he merely presumes that decisions to employ or alter philosophies within dogmatics should be made in the course of exegesis itself and not in some pre-theological space which theologians may enter and exit. Bath states, ‘in dogmatics, it is no doubt possible and even necessary to think and speak historically, psychologically, politically and philosophically. But in dogmatics we cannot treat this kind of thinking and speaking with final seriousness.’ Unconditional loyalty should never be bestowed upon any philosophy:

In this connexion it is hardly relevant to distinguish between good and bad, between the philosophies of this or that school. Nor is it relevant to seek a philosophy which cannot become dangerous in this way. There is none which must become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot have without positing it absolutely. There is none which cannot possibly become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot posit absolutely, that is, in disloyalty to Scripture erect its presentation into principle and an end in itself.

Barth realizes that this is a vicious flattening of various philosophies and he immediately qualifies this conclusion in his next point. (4) While there is no essential or necessary reason to prefer one scheme or philosophy to another in interpreting Scripture, this does not imply overlooking ‘the immanental significance of the difference of philosophical schools and tendencies,’ or the fact that individuals have definite and justifiable reasons, whether aesthetic, logical, or historical, for preferring one school to another. As Barth notes elsewhere, ‘a free theologian does not deny, nor is he ashamed of, his indebtedness to a particular philosophy or ontology, to ways of thought and speech.’ His main concern is to deny any necessary link between a particular philosophy and the faithful reading of Scripture. This is not to discount a certain type of necessity or assert that one’s tools do not matter at all: ‘the necessity which there is is particular: in a specific situation this or that particular mode of thought can be particularly useful in scriptural exegesis, and it can then become a command to avail oneself of it in this particular instance.’ While there are particular necessities for using certain philosophies in concrete circumstances, trouble arises when any specific philosophy is evaluated into a normative one for all times and places. The Word of God is free to use any philosophy for its self-expression. Throughout the history of interpreting Scripture there has hardly been some form of thought dangerous in itself that has not become fruitful and useful through grace (that is, sanctified). (5) The most legitimate and fruitful use of a scheme of thought for interpreting Scripture is a critical one, and yet Scripture is not an object of criticism but represents a subject who criticizes. With this understanding of criticism, Barth can claim that ‘philosophy—and fundamentally any philosophy—can be criticised in the service of the Word of God, and it can then gain legitimate critical power.’ To assert anything else is to underestimate the judging and renewing potency of the Word. Barth uses this claim as a deflationary measure for theology, affirming that ‘it is not really a question of replacing philosophy by a dictatorial, absolute, and exclusive theology, and again discrediting philosophy as an ancilla theologiae … In the face of its object, theology itself can only with to be ancilla. That is why it cannot assign any other role to philosophy.’ Philosophy and theology are both ancillae, for ‘Scripture alone can be the domina. Hence there is no real cause for disputes about prestige.’ If Scripture remains the domina, the result is that ‘we will not need totally or finally to fear any philosophy,’ and ‘perhaps not in practice but in principle’ theologians can ‘adopt a more friendly and understanding attitude to the various possibilities which have manifested themselves or are still manifesting themselves in the history of philosophy, and to make a more appropriate use of them.’[1]

I actually think that what Oakes quotes from Barth in this long development sums up the gist of what Barth’s ‘warnings’ are all about, it is this: “Scripture alone can be the domina.” Or when Oakes quotes Barth in a prior development of his book, this from Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1, 445:

Philosophy, ethics, politics, and anything else suggested here may all have their own dignity and justification in their own spheres but they are the philosophy, ethics and politics of sinful and lost man whose word, however profound and true it may be, cannot be recognized as judge over the Word of God which is addressed in the name of God to these sinful and lost men, as judge, therefore over Church proclamation.

Barth is a theologian of the Word who offers a fat theology of the Word. It is because the Word is so primary and primal for Barth that he’s unafraid of engaging with various philosophies and theologies. It is the freedom that the Word provides that allows, for Barth, the space to think constructively, imaginatively, and resourcefully; a space that I fear too many North American evangelicals shrink back from.

What we, as evangelicals and Protestants ought to maybe imitate in Barth is his willingness to be so unapologetically segregated by the Word of God, unto God, that all else is seen as relative, and potentially useful; as if the history and creation we inhabit isn’t a history and creation unto itself as an end, but that history and creation are God’s history and God’s re-creation in Jesus Christ; this is a theology of the Word. That the Word of God is not a preamble but is the amble by which all other reality can hope to find order and being relative to God.

What I see in Barth’s theology of the Word is a fearlessness, an anti-apologetic approach to all things; again, because he has a principial understanding of what Christian actually means when doing theology and philosophy.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 186-88.

Barth’s Five Warnings on Philosophy and Biblical Exegesis: Scripture Alone is Domina

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