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.

5 thoughts on “On Reading the Bible”

  1. I like what you say here about not “setting aside” one’s philosophy. The direct approach rarely works for change. The more we try: the more entrenched we become. Just being aware that it is there is the best most of us can do.

    I think beyond that it is about learning to listen both to the text and the community gathered around the text. One of the things I like about what InterVarsity is doing today is that they are looking for ways to extend inductive methods like “manuscript study” into online settings. Communities across many cultures will be better able to observe and listen together. Not a panacea, but an exciting tool!

  2. I do not understand what you mean by your references to “communicating the word” or again to the idea of “the voice of God speaking through scripture.” Is there not still a proclamation to make? Yet your ethos appears to me as if you are set against humans speaking and reflecting seriously on “God, revelation and faith” in “human terms.”

    Barth himself explains that dogmatics “tests the orthodoxy of the contemporary kerygma.” It is almost as if for you there is no orthodoxy, not even a bare-bones rule of faith. Perhaps it is precisely such an approach that Barth is adamantly speaking against. Could it be that as a result of being once nourished by those who “expect[ed] more from dogmatics than it can achieve qua dogmatics,” you have become, as if in a fit of over-reaction, one who “take[s] exception to much in dogmatics that is peculiar to it qua dogmatics”?

    Grace and peace,

  3. It seems Barth has a lot to say to contemporary issues in theology. Could you point to some good resources on Barth that are not so critical? Also, where would you advise starting with Barth himself to get a good grasp of his significant contributions to the issues of hermeneutics?

  4. I was quoting Barth from the same section you were referring to (at least I thought that was the same section) to the effect that there are two dangers inherent to dogmatics. The first has to do with overestimating the reach of dogmatics; the second has to do with being offended by what dogmatics is trying to do in the first place: mark out an “orthodoxy” for the present time.

    I am wondering if perhaps because you were exposed earlier to those trying to accomplish the impossible through their dogmatics (over-reach) perhaps you might be (over-)reacting by not permitting dogmatics to do much of anything at all (thus your reluctance to even affirm a bare-bones “rule of faith”). If this gets anything at all right, then, according to this section of Barth (that is, if I understand some of what’s being said here), there is a danger that there will be no proclamation at all to be taken up by the churches. And I furthermore wondered about the ramifications of that situation for your seemingly (anti-)theological approach to biblical studies.


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