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Barth on "Interpretation"

Recently I quoted Dick Lucas on the duty of preachers to be waiters not chefs.  We don't cook up its material, we serve it up.  Thus...

The Bible is not asking us to interpret it. The Bible is an interpretation.

Some might wonder at that statement.  Surely we're always interpreting. Isn't that what Kant taught us?

Well it's interesting what Barth has to say about interpretation.  He sometimes gets tarred with a Kantian brush (bizarrely in my opinion).  But just listen to him blow away that kind of dualism in his Romans commentary:

Preface to First Edition:  ‘Paul, as a child of his age, addressed his contemporaries. It is, however, far more important that, as Prophet and Apostle of the Kingdom of God, he veritably speaks to all men of every age. The differences between then and now, there and here, no doubt require careful investigation and consideration. But the purpose of such investigation can only be to demonstrate that these differences are, in fact, purely trivial. The historical-critical method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place: it is concerned with the preparation of the intelligence – and this can never be superfluous. But were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification. The doctrine of Inspiration is concerned with the labour of apprehending, without which no technical equipment, however complete, is of any use whatever. Fortunately I am not compelled to choose between the two. Nevertheless, my whole energy of interpreting has been expended in an endeavour to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still. What is today of grave importance – and not merely crotchety and incidental – stands in direct connection with that ancient gravity. If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours.”

Preface to Second Edition:  ‘By genuine understanding I mean that creative energy which Luther exercised with intuitive certainty in his exegesis; which underlies the systematic interpretation of Calvin…How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible. If a man persuades himself that Calvin’s method can be dismissed with the old-fashioned motto, ‘The Compulsion of Inspiration’, he betrays himself as one who has never worked upon the interpretation of Scripture. Taking Julicher’s work as typical of much modern exegesis, we observe how closely he keeps to the mere deciphering of words as though they were runes. But, when all is done, they still remain largely unintelligible. How quick he is, without any real struggling with the raw material of the Epistle, to dismiss this or that difficult passage as simply a peculiar doctrine or opinion of Paul! How quick he is to treat a matter as explained, when it is said to belong to the religious thought, feeling, experience, conscience or conviction – of Paul!’

Preface to Third Edition:  ‘The commentator is thus presented with a clear ‘Either – Or’. The question is whether or no he is to place himself in a relation to his author of utter loyalty. Is he to read him, determined to follow him to the very last word, wholly aware of what he is doing, and assuming that the author also knew what he was doing? Loyalty surely cannot end at a particular point, and certainly cannot be exhausted by an exposure of the author’s literary affinities. Anything short of utter loyalty means a commentary ON Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, not a commentary so far as is possible WITH him – even to his last word.’


6 thoughts on “Barth on "Interpretation"

  1. Matt

    I'm not sure I understand this but think I would like to understand it more. I guess I'm not quite sure what he's speaking in contradistinction to.
    Is the idea that we 'just' read the Bible and in dealing with whatever we apprehend by the work of the Spirit with the community of believers that our way of reading is itself reformed such that we keep reading each time with ever more renewed eyes? Is there an iternative or cyclical process or a deepening spiral (not that this side of eternity we ever see more than 'in part')?

  2. woldeyesus

    How tragic that there is little or no recognition today of the Holy Bible as a tightly sealed book on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God open only to disciples of Christ!

    No one else is worthy to break the seals and interpret it except through personal instruction by the living Christ in his perfect and transfigurative death on the cross, a.k.a. "a Lamb standing ... which appeared to have been killed ..." (Rev. 5).

    The Bible is not an interpretation but is crying out for one!

  3. theoldadam

    We ought not lift the text out of the Bible, but rather we ought lift the gospel out of the text.

    That's what my pastor says, anyhow.

    Isn't that what the whole book is about anyway?

    It's not a manual on how to put together a lawnmower, but a love and rescue story of a God who loves and forgives and who died for sinners.

    Look for the law to convict (not to make better - it's too late for that)...and then look for the gospel and hand it of charge.


  4. Glen

    Hi Matt,
    Definitely there's that deepening spiral that goes on. But what Barth's really reacting against is a view of the bible that puts a great distance between us and the text and then requires the expertise of archaeology and grammatical-historical hermeneutical techniques to bridge the gap between then and now, them and us. We need a new priesthood to bring the ancient message up to date for modern readers.

    To riff on Otepoti and OldAdam's points, it's not that the bible is this static thing and we are the active ones, bringing it to life (requiring an expert class of exegetes/preachers/etc) - no the bible is the living and active thing and it brings us into *its* realm.

    One of Barth's early essays was "The Strange New World of the Bible" where he describes reading Scripture as stepping into another realm (and here's where your deepening spiral thing comes in). Thus it's not *anyone's* job to make the bible relevant to today - preaching is the declaration of what is already relevant so that today might be brought into this strange new realm. We don't bridge from out of the text into the modern day, we invite people to jump in with both feet! *Then* we will hear the Scriptures speak with resounding clarity to the issues of our day - while decisively reshaping what we consider those issues to be.

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