Thursday, March 18, 2010

Barth and Evangelical Theology: Part 3, “A Person of the Book?”

Kevin Vanhoozer, formerly of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School but now at Wheaton College, follows up Fackre’s discussion on Barth’s views of Revelation with a chapter entitled “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation.” As Vanhoozer notes, evangelicals have traditionally been bothered by Barth’s distinction between the Word of God (Jesus) and the words of men (the Bible).[1]

As examples of this skepticism, Vanhoozer summarizes the critiques of Barth by two major figures in early (post-fundamentalist) evangelicalism, Cornelius Van Til and Carl F.H. Henry, who both were concerned that Barth’s “neo-orthodoxy[2] was a modernist wolf in evangelical sheep’s clothing, an uneasy yoking of biblical insights and a non-biblical philosophical framework” (27–28).

Vanhoozer then deals with a second group of evangelicals in the 1970s, such as Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch (who wrote the forward to Barth and Evangelical Theology), who argued “that Barth had raised valid points about the dangers of ‘biblicism’ and refused to read him aas an indentured servant to existentialist philosophy” (33). Barth appreciated Barth’s desire to interpret the Bible “in the light of what it claims to be,” rather than by forcing a foreign framework upon it (35). Bloesch appreciated Barth for meeting “the challenge of higher criticism by showing that it needs to be ‘supplemented and fulfilled by theological criticism, which is carried on only by faith seeking understanding’” (35).

Barth deals with some of these issues in the preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans. Barth here says: “I have nothing whatever to say against historical criticism. I recognize it, and once more state quite definitively that it is both necessary and justified. My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation of the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary. Recent commentaries contain no more than a reconstruction of the text, a rendering of the Greek words and phrases by their precise equivalents, a number of additional notes in which archaeological and philological material is gathered together, and a more or less plausible arrangement of the subject matter in such a manner that it may be made historically and psychologically intelligible from the standpoint of pure pragmatism” (6). Barth does want to follow critics in their “preliminary work.” Barth then says, “When, however, I examine their attempts at genuine understanding and interpretation, I am again and again surprised how little they even claim for their work. By genuine understanding and interpretation I mean that creative energy which Luther exercised with intuitive certainty in his exegesis; which underlies the systematic interpretation of Calvin . . . ” (7).

I find myself in great agreement with Barth on these matters. I do have great appreciation for the historical-gramatical method (in which I was trained in college) and the historical-critical method (in which I have been trained in seminary), but at the same time, I have some criticisms of these methods. For example, John Collins, in his The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age, defines historical criticism as “a loose umbrella that covers a range of methods” which “have in common . . . a general agreement that texts should be interpreted in their historical contexts, in light of the literary and cultural conventions of their time” (4). I totally agree with Collins here, but then he says, “historical critics usually assume a hierarchy of meanings and regard the historical context as basic or primary” (4). Here is where I disagree with him: the Bible is not first and foremost a text for historical critics, but the text of the church![3]

Collins also argues that historical criticism brings people together. “It has created an arena where people with different faith commitments can work together and have meaningful conversations. The historical focus has been a way of getting distance from the text, of respecting its otherness. The neutrality and objectivity at which the discipline has aimed has allowed Jews and Christians to work together and has allowed feminists to make their case in ways that initially unsympathetic scholars have found compelling” (10). Now, let me preface my following comments by saying I am not against conversation—I think it’s important. I read scholars from which I differ in opinion and seek to learn from them. At the same time, of course people can work together when they distance themselves from the biblical text and try and look at it “objectively” (whatever that means). When something doesn’t mean anything to your life (or you seek to compartmentalize your life to the extent that something doesn’t mean anything in certain contexts) it’s easy to give yourself over fully to historical criticism. I question, however, how helpful it is for us to distance ourselves from the biblical text or that we can truly stand above the biblical text as “objective observers” (again, whatever that means). That’s why I enjoy Barth’s exegesis, which is done within the context of the church as faith seeking understanding.

Now back to Vanhoozer, who then deals with what he calls the “third wave” of evangelicals, those who interact with Barth through “Yale school” postliberals like Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. Frei and Lindbeck emphasize (like Fackre) the canon as “realistic narrative.” Lindbeck also coins the term “intratextuality,” by which he means “redescribing reality within the framework of the biblical narrative rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories” (38; see also Yale Ph.D Stanely Hauerwas’ critique of translation. Brad Kallenberg has a nice treatment of Hauerwas’ critique of translation in Ethics as Grammar). Some other “third wave” evangelicals (I assume Vanhoozer places himself in this category, but he doesn’t come out and say it) returned to Church Dogmatics to study Barth.

Barth says of the Bible, “The Word of God is God himself in Holy Scripture” (39). This stems from his concept that “only God can make God known” (39). This connects with Fackre’s discussion in my last post of Barth’s emphasis upon the freedom of God to reveal himself.

Vanhoozer distinguishes evangelical understandings of the Bible from Barth’s by saying, “For evangelicals, the Word of God is an object—the deposit of revealed truth in Scripture. By contrast, for Barth the Word of God is a subject whose speaking in and through Jesus Christ creates both the canon and the church” (39). The Word for Barth is thus a witness to the revelation of God in history (and for Barth, the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity). This is important, for Barth does not see the Bible as an object to stand over and observe as a detached reader, but as a subject that reveals God as a living and active witness. As Vanhoozer later says, “Biblical interpretation is essentially the attempt to hear and obey the subject matter of Scripture, not to observe and master it” (46). Barth thus spends little time discussion hermeneutical theory, but shows his theories through exegesis of Scripture.

Barth, however, as I noted in my last post, rejected the evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. He does not do so because he denies the possibility of divine communication, but rather Barth “affirms that that God has spoken in Scripture and will speak again, he refuses to presume upon God’s speaking” (41). Scripture does not speak on its own, but as the Spirit works “in and through [Scripture]” (42). Scripture thus functions authoritatively as God works and speaks through a text written by humans who “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Vanhoozer, as an advocate of inerrancy, however, tries to make Barth fit an evangelical mold by saying Barth “is apparently free to treat the Bible, for all intents and purposes, as inerrant testimony to God’s self-revelation” (44), a questionable argument to say the least.

I do, however, whole-heartedly agree with Vanhoozer that “Evangelicals do Barth a disservice when, in analyzing his view of Scripture, they treat only his statements about the Bible and its indirect relation to the Word of God. To neglect Barth’s actual use and interpretation of the Bible is to fail to examine an enormous amount of evidence that casts his more theoretical (and rhetorical) statements in a markedly different light” (44). Evangelicals would then “do well to consider not only Barth’s theory but also his exegetical practice” (45).

Vanhoozer argues that the current context gives evangelicals a chance to reconsider Barth’s views on Scripture by holding up the examples of Bruce McCormack and Francis Watson.

Vanhoozer closes the chapter by arguing that philosophies of language, such as those by J.L. Austin, who emphasize speech-acts, can help evangelicals come to terms with the various apparent contradictions between Barth’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty and evangelicals emphasis upon “a fixed and authoritative propositional revelation” (55). While I applaud Vanhoozer’s use of speech-act philosophy, I have mixed feelings about Vanhoozer’s discussion of propositional communication.

While I don’t agree with Vanhoozer on every point (just as I didn’t when I read his Drama of Doctrine), I applaud his survey of evangelical responses to Barth and his willingness to interact with it constructively. Just like Fackre’s chapter, Vanhoozer’s discussion of Barth’s concept of divine illumination can serve as a great help to members of the Stone-Campbell Movement. In my next post, I will interact with Sung Wook Chung’s chapter, “A Bold Innovator: Barth on God and Election.”

[1] I am aware of the problems with the use of the word “men” for humanity. I’m using it in reference to Barth’s work because his translator, the recently deceased Geoffrey Bromiley, uses men in the English version of Church Dogmatics.

[2] The term “neo-orthodoxy” was not Barth’s invention, but something applied by both fans and detractors to his thought.

[3] Collins does, thankfully, acknowledge ancient ways of reading Scripture, saying, “To understand the ancient context of a text requires some sympathetic analogy between ancient and modern situations” (5–6).

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