Karl Barth on Historical Criticism

Karl Barth on Historical Criticism

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the RomansKarl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans
This article is the second in a series of two articles explaining Karl Barth’s approach to biblical exegesis.  In the first article I focused on Karl Barth’s method of spirit-led discernment in interpreting the Bible. In this second article I will explain Karl Barth’s view of the subordinate role of historical-critical methods in biblical exegesis.

I will limit my exposition of Barth to three sets of writings: 1) Karl Barth, “Foreword to the First, Second, and Third Editions of The Epistle to the Romans,” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 61-61, 88-99, 126-130 (cited as 1F, 2F, and 3F, respectively); 2) Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (pictured to the right), pp. 27-42 (cited as R); and 3) “The Debate on the Critical Historical Method: Correspondence between Adolf von Harnack and Karl Barth,” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 165-187 (cited as B).

Karl Barth: History and Exegesis

For Karl Barth, historical study plays a preparatory role in exegesis. Barth denies that he is a “declared enemy of historical criticism (2F-94).” Rather, the historical-critical method—translating and paraphrasing from ancient to modern languages using lexical and archaeological knowledge, along with common sense about human communication—is a means of establishing “what is there” in the text (2F-91) that is “never superfluous (1F-61).” However, for Barth such study is no more than “preparation for understanding (1F-61),” and can never substitute for the real work of energetic Spirit-led explanation. The historical differences between biblical writer and interpreter must be considered, but only to recognize that such differences have “no significance for what really matters (1F 61).” Historical work clears the way so that the central task of engaging the timeless issues of scripture can begin. Barth wants to see “through the historical into the spirit of the Bible, which is the eternal Spirit (1F-61, emphasis original).”

Karl Barth cites two important limitations to historical-critical study. First, scholars who tend to emphasize such study produce weak explanations of scripture since they leave out the process of active Spirit-led reflection (2F-92), emptying theology of its main task of discerning the “the Word (B-177).” According to Barth, historical knowledge yields not an explanation of a text but only “the first primitive attempt at one (2F-91).” As a result, the historical critics end up with explanations of scripture that impose impoverished religious categories—e.g., conscience, feeling, and experience—on the text (2F-92). Barth mockingly suggests that “the historical critics must be more critical” since their historical treatment of the text excludes the “relevant” treatment of active Spirit-led engagement (2F-93).

Moreover, Barth emphasizes that the object of the witness of scripture—the divine self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ—cannot be known through direct historical study (B-179-180). Historical-critical efforts do not recover Jesus Christ as revelation, but only “the historical context of the alleged revelation (B-180).” For Karl Barth, history is not a “direct communication” of knowledge about Christ (as it is for Harnack), but is rather a relative witness or pointer to God’s revelation in Christ, which can only be known by Spiritual means (B-182). Hence, Harnack’s “simple gospel” is distant from true knowledge of Christ. To overly “simplify” is to speak falsely (2F-90).

For Barth, a second limitation is that—despite claims to the contrary—historical-critical study is not “objective.” At the simplest level, historical study is not an exact science and often relies on questionable assumptions (2F-91). Moreover, historical study often becomes a means of passing over without comment those scriptural “remnants” that offend the sensibilities of modern interpreters (2F-96). Here historical study yields not objective teachings, but rather the subjective preferences of the interpreter. Thus, Karl Barth argues that the “scientific” (historical-critical) approach to scripture is not absolutely objective, but is simply the current cultural opinion of what is rational. He suggests that “the jurists, physicians, and philosophers” of the day would do better to look to theology, rather than the “papacy of science,” for their standards of rationality (B-170, 181). For Barth, all human effort—including historical-critical study—is parable, while God alone is absolute and authoritative. Hence, truly objective exegesis depends on God’s interpretive activity, not historical study (B-181).

In summary, for Karl Barth, historical study can—at its best—help the exegete prepare for the task of explaining the meaning of scripture. For Barth the central task of interpretation is a Spirit-led process of discerning the “Word within the words.” Where Harnack emphasizes human intellectual capacities in his exegetical approach, Barth emphasizes the reflexive activity of God in revealing the content of the scripture.


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