On Reading the Bible

Barth finishes ch. 3 of the Dogmatics with a section on reading the Bible. As we have been noting through the review of Christian Smith’s work, reading the Bible is not as straightforward as one might guess.

There is a historical sense to be had–or at least, to be approximated and approached.

But articulating what the apostles and prophets said is not the same as understanding what those words entail, and it is not the same as being transformed in our whole way of life by them.

Barth insists that the act of biblical interpretation must, then, not only be a practice of articulating what the text meant, but of actively engaging that text as witness to the Word of God. We have not “read” if we have not been changed, made obedient, transformed in mind and heart.

What about the theologies and philosophies we bring with us? Barth recognizes that we all bring a philosophy of our own day and time with us. Somewhat surprisingly, but quite realistically, he does not demand the (futile) attempt to set these aside.

Instead, we should recognize that each philosophy has the ability to be taken hold of by the grace of God and made an instrument for communicating the word; and, each philosophy has the ability to become an idolatrous substitute, determining in advance what the word must conform to.

And when we say, “philosophy” here, we also mean “theological system.”

The church is free under the word so long as it reads and listens to that word, listening in the sense of being taken hold of by it and willing to have its prior understandings transformed by the voice of God speaking in scripture.

The ideas Barth hits on here continue to be important: is historical critical reading of the Bible sufficient? what about praxis in response to what we’ve read? do we bring a strong paradigm that controls what the scriptures can say?

Biblical scholarship (and, indeed, the church at large) has not yet embodied a viable solution to these questions. And we might anticipate that there will not be one final solution–because this itself would, no doubt, turn into yet another version of that controlling idol that attempts to constrain the voice of God speaking through scripture.

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