Sunday, 14 September 2008

Barth's exegesis

This is just beautiful. The following are Childs' comments on Barth, made at a colloquium on the subject at Yale in 1969:

"Now there are many criticisms of Barth's use of Scriptures ... . Usually the criticism is made ... that Barth does not take historical criticism seriously. ...

... it seems to me that that does not at all get at the heart of the problem. It's not that Barth does not know it, but somehow Barth judges it inadequate to the type of work that he's doing. He's called it prolegomena. Barth allows you to read the text from different contexts. It seems to me that he is always interested in different ways of studying it. But he continues to insist that ultimately the context from which theology has to be done is the context of Scripture—Old and New Testament—in the Canonical context.

And for this reason he is always opposed to the easy combinations of first starting with neutrality and then moving over into some kind of confessional position. ...

... Stendahl feels that in a sense Barth doesn't do close exegetical work. His commentary on Romans could just as well have been written on Galatians. You never would have known the difference. And there is a certain sense in which this is true.

And yet it seems to me it's the fact that Barth wants to go through the text, to the reality, that the text becomes a transparency, that the walls that separate the Apostle from the reader are dissolved, and one then begins to confront the reality itself—and for Barth there can be no antiquarian interest. And that means Barth has the tendency always to move down, to move through, and talk about the transparency. Very soon one is wrestling with the realities of Grace, and Judgement, and Nature and Grace—all the rest of these things—and that remains a problem. It seems to me this may be somewhat of an overstatement, but it is true that the kind of work he does is of such a different genre that for one who has been trained in the traditional critical way, it does seem that wherever Barth starts, he ends up in these massive theological statements and most of us have trouble following him.


Mark Stevens said...

This is the greatest area of struggle I have with Barth. I love (most) of what he says yet struggle with how he comes to a point. He seems to have no real biblical accountability (if that makes sense). I think his view of exegesis is somewhat idealistic (not that I am any expert at all).

Phil, I assume when Childs says. "But he continues to insist that ultimately the context from which theology has to be done is the context of Scripture—Old and New Testament—in the Canonical context", he is referring to receiving the scriptures as they come to us. Is he saying that the only context that Barth is concerned with is the book, letter or gospel as it sits in the canon?

If this is so, this is what i find most difficult. If for no other reason than I like the context and believe it is vitally important to the study of scripture. But hey, I could well be wrong and there is to much of Barth I like to write him off yet.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Mark,
I think these are important and legitimate questions. The issue of Barth's "theological" exegesis (I think ultimately he would say it is the only "true" exegesis) is complicated. Even here, I think Childs is struggling to get his head round the issue. In the dialogue he expresses disagreement with Barr's characterization, for example, so this is an intepretation. But it was one that was profoundly influential influential for Childs' own approach.

Childs also critiques Barth for sometimes allowing his "larger conceptual framework" to function as "a theological construct which smothers the text itself." He goes on to ask "What is the nature of theological controls when one relativiszes the function of historical criticism?" Later on, Childs talks of different levels of meaning that are dilectically related to each other: one goes from the witness to the reality and then back to the witness, now read in light of the broader reality. I guess he would say Barth was doing this, rightly seeing that the reality the text witnesses to is theological and not just an event in Israelite history or a human state of mind (Bultmann). Given the dialectical nature of the move from reality (dogmatics) to text (exegesis) and back to reality, I think Childs doesn't question Barth's exegetical approach, just concrete examples of how he does it. The concept of the "rule of faith" became increasingly important for Childs, i.e. the idea that a concrete theological reality is the object of the text's witness and thus the only adequate context out of which the text should be read. This makes it legitmate to read the trinity in relation to Genesis 1, for example, though not into Ge 1. It's all about dialectic and distinguishing levels of meaning. The historicist mistake is to assume that the original historical meaning is the measure for the meaning of the text. Childs says its important, but not the only one.

In answer to your question about "canonical context": I think this means more that the final literary shape of the book. It is a theological category which includes the total witness to God which the church has designated as such: i.e. the Old and New Testaments. And these read in the light of church dogma: the rule of faith. Childs often talks of the canonical context of the community of faith--a concept I've struggled with in my post What does Childs mean by "canonical context"?.

So, as you say, context is vital. It's just a question of which context and the nature of the relationships between them (historical/literary/canonical/theological).

And don't worry about not being an expert! I'm anything but that. I often feel pretentious the way I post things. I just figure that hardly anyone's an expert so it's worth just taking the plunge and seeing what happens.

Mark Stevens said...

"The historicist mistake is to assume that the original historical meaning is the measure for the meaning of the text." This is probably where I wrestle the most with the relationship between historical, literary and then theological interpretations/understanding of a text. My default tendency is to say that the only interpretation we can exhume from a text (done in humility of course) is that for which it was originally intended. However, theologically we look at that text a) within its context and b) within the context of all scripture and the entire salvation narrative. What I feel Barth and others of his ilk often do is to minimise the text in its context and, like you said, smother the text with their theology. In some ways my critique would be the same for Pentecostals who treat the text as their hobby horse (an extreme example I know. I am certainly not saying that Barth is like that however, I see similarities in the method).

So which context? I said to our congregation on Sunday that Context is vital. the context of the text provides us with an understanding of how God was working in that particular situation. And, our situation, while never providing meaning to the text, does provide the context within which we live out the reality of the text (not in a pragmatic sense). We try and understand how God was working in their context so we might see how he is working in ours!

Does that make sense? I am typing n the run. My daughter has my morning paper and is slowly destroying it. I had better run!

Phil Sumpter said...

This is a difficult area but I think an important one. Childs' position (which I see as being developed out of Barth's) is that, as you say, the goal of exegesis is to guide us to God himself, the God that is alive today and is greater than not only our perceptions can comprehend but also those of the Biblical authors. Their witness is fragmentary, it is not the case that Paul has it all figured out. We need the big picture, as you said in your first paragraph ("we look at that text ... b) within the context of all scripture and the entire salvation narrative"), and not just the small picture ("a]" in your scheme: the direct "context," by which you mean the historical situation). But if that is the case, hermeneutical implications follow which I'm not sure you pick up on in your second paragraph, where you only mention the historical context and then suggest that the "actualization" of the text for the contemporary church consists in finding an anology in our historical situation. I think, when you rightly tell your congregation that we need "context," it is the "entire salvation narrative" that is the one which provides the best context for making the text relevant, and not 1st century Judaism, as important as that is as a sub-element (see my quote on the relevance of Luther).

But if we are to give prime importance to the context of the “salvation narrative,” we have to make sure we understand what this narrative is. And I believe, as my blog name indicates, that Gospel has not only a narrative, temporal dimension, but also an ontological. The trinity, for example, structures the creed and is held by systematic theologians such as Jenson to be the foundation for thought about God. Not only the trinity, but the eternal nature of Christ as pre-existent Son and the vehicle for creation is a reality that cannot be best described in “narrative categories”. This was the problem with narrative which I was trying to get at in my post on the NT being a chapter in a story. At best, Heilsgeschichte is a theological construct which gives us one way for understanding the Gospel, but not the only way.

Applying this larger dogmatic reality now to the text means that we must do more than fit its particularity within an unfolding narrative which enfolds us. It also means that we must think hard about the nature of the reality that the text is talking about, understood from our perspective now in the “latter days.” It means that we can understand the Psalmists' Christology better than he could, or the significance of the creative power of sophia (Wisdom) better than the sages. Theological exegesis—exegesis which aims to get to the reality to which the Biblical witnesses (μάρτυρες ) are trying to point us to in all their fragmentary form—means thinking about the content of their particular message in the context of the content of all the messages contained in the Bible. Childs tries to put this across with the following example:

“The Old Testament witness to creation does not ever sound the name of Jesus. At the same time, it is equally true that the Old Testament does not conceive of the creator God as a monad or monolithic block. In Genesis, in the prophets, and especially in the wisdom books, there is a dynamic activity within the Godhead and an eschatological relation between the old and the new, between creation once-for-all and creatio continua, between divine transcendence and immanent entrance into the world. It is crucial for any serious Christian theology to reflect on how this variety of witness to the God of Israel is to be understood in the light of the New Testament's witness (John, Colossians, Hebrews) to the creative role of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father.” (Biblical Theology, 83)

Childs concludes: “It is my thesis that such reflection demands a continuing wrestling with the central issue of the reality constitutive of these biblical witnesses.” (83).

I've written a lot, I hope I haven't overwhelmed you! I find writing about such things helps clarifying them in my head, which I need to do as this is what I'm studying at the moment! Feel free to critique in return.

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks for the convo, Phil. As usual, I like it when I understand it. I get lost in not knowing all the terminology of everything you're referring to along the way. But sometimes the clouds do part and I really like it a lot. :)

In your post you said theology has to be done within the canonical context. Incidently, my own academic mission began from the idea that ecclesiology ought to be done within the historical context of the NT Cannon. And I realize, only today, why your talk on Childs' approach keeps demanding my attention. It's because I didn't start out by looking for "history". I started with the New Testament (cannon) and began to look for the historical "context" of IT.


So thanks again, Phil. And don't forget that if you try to write in laymen's terms at least 5% more often, I'll be at least 10% more grateful! :)

Phil Sumpter said...

Well, Bill, I'm glad my posts are of profit. Sorry about the jargon. I do think that writing more clearly can be beneificial for both author and reader, but the problem is time. I tend to rattle these posts off and so I haven't the time to "translate." Perhaps in time you'll learn the lingo. I hear full immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language.

Bill Heroman said...

Indeed. :)