Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Few Thoughts on Theological Exegesis, Jim West and Karl Barth

Posted in Hermeneutics, Historical Criticsm, Karl Barth, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on August 3, 2010

Jim West wrote a brief but insightful article about Theological Exegesis on The Bible and Interpretation site.  He argues that, “Commentators should be urged to follow the methodology of combining historical analysis with theological interpretation so that readers of their volumes learn that exegesis is both historical and theological in nature. Historical exegesis alone is insufficient because it lacks explanatory power, and theological exegesis alone is without proper foundation in an accurate understanding of scripture.”  Someone who is doing a research on reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture I salute his conclusion, “theologians have to become exegetes and exegetes have to become theologians. But that discussion is for another time.” In this post I want to bring up couple of thoughts by the way of dialogue.

First, there will be a push back from those who stand outside the confessional circles.  For example, in his recent review [RBL 04/2005] of Childs’ Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture H.G.M. Williamson writes, “I approach the Old Testament as a professing Christian, and in preaching and some forms of my writing I too struggle with it as part of Christian scripture.  In that guise, I recognize all too well the issues that Childs is raising, and I benefit from his insights into an appropriate hermeneutic.”  Yet he insists that there is value and legitimacy to writing in a “narrow academic context.”  In the academic context there seems to be suspicion those like Childs who seek to broaden hermeneutical tool-bag do so because in their mind “any exegesis that is not confessionally Christian is automatically deficient.”  Williamson complains about scholarship that uses explicitly Christian theological language, “Such scholarship may not be all that is to be said of a text.”  He is at pains to argue that historical-critical approach is not “inimical to Christian scripture.”  In my mind Williamson represents the current academic consensus that often sees Theological Exegesis as an added extra, a hermeneutical dessert reserved for those who have a taste for it.  Hence much more is needed than simply stating that historical criticism alone is deficient because it lacks explanatory power.  Scholars like Williamson are long ways away from concluding with West that, “Theological exegesis is simply the opposite side of the coin of hermeneutics.”

Second, at the very end of his article there is a following foot-note, “Anyone who reads Karl Barth’s famous ‘Romans’ knows full well what happens when theology is cut loose from scripture’s historical moorings: one learns a lot about the theology of the author and nothing about the theology of the Scriptures.”  I am newcomer to Barth, as is clearly evident from my previous posts.  Yet I wonder if West dismissed a valuable ally?  Few thoughts are in order here.

It seems that West treats Barth in ways that has become almost axiomatic among both evangelicals and liberals.  For example see Edgar McKnight’s dismissive criticism of Barth as having very little to contribute to to the contemporary hermeneutics (Meaning in Text, 65-72).  Yet according to Richard Burnett, “A new day has clearly dawned in Barth studies.”  It is evident in the wave of recent monographs on Barth’s Theological Exegesis.  Among the few that are on my shelf I would mention, Richard Burnett’s Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period, Paul McGlasson’s Jesus and Judas: Biblical Exegesis in Barth, and Mark Gignilliat’s Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah. So it seems that there is a turn towards seeing Barth as a careful theological exegete rather than systematic theologian running around amok with an exegetical hose.

How might West lean on Barth in adding substance to his position?  Here are few suggestions based on Mark Wallace’s book The Second Naivete: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology. Contrary to his critics’ suspicion Barth consistently maintained that he was not a devout opponent of the historical-critical approach.  Reading his 2nd preface to the Epistle to the Romans I get a sense that he wants to shout, “I am not an enemy of historical criticism.”  According to Wallace, “His complaint was never against historical criticism per se but against historicist bias- the appeal to the historical world behind the Bible instead of the subject matter within the Bible.  Barth avers that real criticism does not stop at the threshold of historical inquiries into the language background, and authors of the Bible; rather, it presses forward to understand better the text as a message concerning God’s relationship to humankind.  He recognizes that the Bible is not ahistorical, authorless text, but, by the same token, the thrust of the scriptural message is missed if the Bible is read exclusively in the light of its ancient world origins and not in relation to its own inner-Christian starting point.”  What is missed in purely historical-critical reading of the text?  Wallace quotes Barth, “I have, moreover, no desire to conceal the fact that my ‘Biblicist’ method- which means in the end no more than ‘consider well’- is applicable also to the study of Lao-Tse and of Goethe.”  According to Wallace, “Consider well” is the true epithet for Barth’s hermeneutic: interpretation is guided by the text’s power to bring its unique subject matter face-to-face with the reader.”  Here in my mind lies the strength of Barth’s position.  Theological Exegesis is seen as indispensable for the task of hermeneutics because it gives us interpretive tools to engage with the subject matter of the text at hand.  Without it we face the danger of tricycling around the text with historical critical questions without ever really diving into it.  Exegete stands outside the text while the text’s subject matter bids him or her to enter into the world in front of the text to use Ricoeur’s language.  Or to paraphrase Barth, Theological Exegesis allows the text to speak.  We listen well.  And respond in faith and obedience.    

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