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Karl Barth's Theological ExegesisThe Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period
By Richard E. Burnett
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck)
All right reserved.
Karl Barth's break with liberalism in the summer of 1915 is the most important event that has occurred in theology in over two hundred years. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the precise nature of Barth's break with liberalism continues to be analyzed. Many books have dealt with this topic, but the most important to appear in recent years has been Bruce McCormack's Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936. This study has overturned Hans Urs von Balthasar's thesis, which prevailed for nearly half a century, that Barth's break actually consisted of two breaks, "two conversions," "two decisive turning-points," the first occurring sometime during the First World War, which was a turn from liberal theology to dialectical theology, culminating in the second edition of his Romerbrief (1922), and the second occurring in the late 1920s, which was a turn "from dialectic to analogy," culminating in his little book on Anselm which he wrote in 1931 entitled Fides Quaerens Intellectum. McCormack has shown that although there were various shifts in Barth's development, there was actually only one break, that which occurred in the summer of 1915, and that analogy never simply replaced dialectic but co-existed with it in Barth's thought from at least 1920 on, and that Barth's theology was always inherently dialectical from the first edition of his Romerbrief (1919) through the Church Dogmatics, in the sense that it presupposed a Realdialektik of the veiling and unveiling of God in revelation. The upshot of all this is that we now have a new paradigm, a new periodization of Barth's development, which has not only further dismantled the largely Anglo-American myth of a neo-orthodox Barth, but has also shown, because of "a single material insight" which began to emerge in Barth's thought in the summer of 1915, "that Barth was from first to last a theologian (and not a philosopher turned theologian as von Balthasar and those who followed in his wake seemed to imply)." A new day has clearly dawned in Barth studies. But as pioneering as McCormack's work has been and as much insight as he has given us into the social, political, cultural, philosophical, and theological antecedents leading up to Barth's break with liberalism, many important questions remain. What was Barth's relationship to Kant prior to his break with liberalism and throughout his Romerbrief period? What was his relationship to the reformers, to Luther, to Calvin? And above all, what was Barth's relationship to Schleiermacher? The significance of this latter question can hardly be overestimated. Barth recognized the significance of Schleiermacher's legacy perhaps more than anyone else of his generation. Prior to his break with liberalism he had been a deeply devoted disciple of Schleiemacher. At the end of his career he questioned whether Schleiermacher was not only the church father of the nineteenth century but of the twentieth century as well. Even after his break, in his introductory lecture to his course on Schleiermacher in Gottingen on Nov. 11, 1923, he said:
Schleiermacher merits detailed historical consideration and study even if only because he was the one in whom the great struggle of Christianity with the strivings and achievements of the German spirit in 1750-1830, in whose light or shadow we still stand today, took place in a way which would still be memorable even if he were dead and his theological work had been transcended.... But Schleiermacher is not dead for us and his theological work has not been transcended. If anyone still speaks today in Protestant theology as though he were still among us, it is Schleiermacher. We study Paul and the reformers, but we see with the eyes of Schleiermacher and think along the same lines as he did. This is true even when we criticize or reject the most important of his theologoumena or even all of them. Wittingly or willingly or not, Schleiermacher's method and presuppositions are the typical ferment in almost all theological work.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the last several decades about Karl Barth's relationship to Schleiermacher. Many have claimed that Barth's treatment of Schleiermacher was not always fair. Indeed some have argued that especially in the period immediately following his break, his "critique was seriously mistaken at every juncture." Barth himself said of those early years:
It is certain that what I thought, said, and wrote from that year  on, I simply did without him, and that his spectacles were not sitting on my nose as I was expounding the Epistle to the Romans. He was no longer a 'church father' for me. It is further certain, however, that this 'without him' implied a rather sharp 'against him.' On occasion, I intentionally made that explicit. Yet I really did not do it - since 'old love never fades' - without a deep inner regret that it could not be otherwise.
Suffice it to say, no account of Barth's break with liberalism can be considered complete apart from a thorough examination of his relationship to Schleiermacher. The following study seeks, in part, to contribute to a further understanding of this very deep and complex relationship. Though it makes no pretense of being complete in any sense, it does focus on a theme that deeply concerned them both.
More has been written about Schleiermacher's hermeneutics in the last hundred years than about any other topic related to him. Yet very little has been written about Barth's relationship to Schleiemacher's hermeneutics. This is surprising not only because of the enormous influence of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics throughout the twentieth century, but also because Barth himself recognized it from early on. In his 1923/24 Gottingen lectures on Schleiermacher, Barth chose Schleiermacher's hermeneutics from the four theological works selected to represent his greatest achievement as a scholar, for the following reason: "I am choosing for this purpose his hermeneutics, partly because of the principal importance of the material, for if a theologian of this significance wants to explain to us from what standpoint he reads and understands other writings, and especially the Bible, will not this apparently specialized question be in a very special way the place where everything is decided?" Barth, of course, could have chosen from a number of other works, but the primary reason he seems to have chosen Schleiermacher's hermeneutics as among his "most mature and decisive" is because "here we shall have the chance to get to know Schleiermacher at his best and most brilliant, in his natural strength, on his home ground, for, to use his own expression, he was a virtuoso in the field whose method hermeneutics describes." Barth's analysis of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics in his Gottingen lectures is as nuanced and erudite as one can find in the early 1920s. Yet it also reflects the level of understanding, the depth of engagement, of one who knows exactly where he stands in relationship to it. The following study seeks to demonstrate that Barth did know where he stood in relationship to Schleiermacher's hermeneutics and knew from a much earlier period than most have realized.
In 1965, in the second edition of his epoch-making work, Wahrheit und Methode, Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to the first edition of Karl Barth's Romerbrief as "a virtual hermeneutical manifesto." This is an intriguing claim because the word hermeneutics does not even appear in any of the editions of Barth's Romerbrief and because the theme of hermeneutics, apart from a few remarks in the prefaces, is nowhere specifically addressed. Unfortunately, Gadamer never elaborated on this claim, nor has anyone else provided a substantive explanation of it. It is the purpose of this study, however, to demonstrate that Gadamer was basically correct in referring to the first edition of Barth's Romerbrief as "a virtual hermeneutical manifesto," and the reason is because it challenged the hegemony of a reigning hermeneutical tradition, that of Friedrich Schleiermacher. To state it precisely, this study seeks to advance the thesis that an important part of Karl Barth's attempt to break with liberalism was his attempt to overcome the hermeneutical tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher - a tradition which was emerging before him and extended well beyond him yet took definitive shape in him - and that Barth's attempt to overcome this hermeneutical tradition is reflected throughout his Romerbrief period and particularly in his attempt to engage in what he referred to as "theological exegesis." Before I suggest why this study is important, however, it is necessary to address one particular issue which no consideration of this topic can avoid.
McCormack has argued that Karl Barth's break with liberalism and subsequent theological revolution came about as the result of "a single material insight" and not primarily as the result of a shift in theological method. This is an important claim because "having identified a shift in theological method as the most significant," many interpreters, according to McCormack, have "had a tendency to give to methodological questions a prominence that they simply did not have in Barth's development when that development is viewed genetically - that is, from a standpoint within the development itself." The following study seeks not to challenge this claim regarding the priority of content over method but, on the contrary, to underscore and deepen it, even if in an effort to contribute to a fuller account of Barth's break with liberalism, it also seeks to take one step beyond it.
Barth could indeed say from the beginning of his theological revolution, as he did throughout his career, that "methodus est arbitraria." Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his talk about method and hermeneutics in the first half-volume of his Church Dogmatics, where we repeatedly come across statements such as "When God's Word is heard and proclaimed, something takes place that for all our hermeneutical skill cannot be brought about by hermeneutical skill," or "The only proper thing to do here is to renounce altogether the search for a method of hearing God's Word, for an unequivocally correct description of its entry into man, into the realm of his experiences, attitudes and thoughts." From such statements it might appear that Barth was simply indifferent to hermeneutics or the question of method. This is certainly how many interpreted him after World War II and throughout the 1960s. More recently, however, a younger generation of scholars has suggested that Barth's emphasis on the priority of content over method, specifically his emphasis on the priority of actual exegesis over hermeneutical theory, makes him more an exemplar or precursor of 'post-modern' or 'post-critical' thought. One such scholar, Mary Kathleen Cunningham, has for such reasons said that Barth's hermeneutic is basically "ad hoc," that he offers only "ad hoc hermeneutical principles." Explaining the reason for her own procedure, she says:
Moving from an examination of Barth's hermeneutical comments to a study of his exegesis does not honor the pattern of Barth's thinking, neither the unsystematic nature of his thought, nor his commitment to proceed from the particular to the general. Constructing a systematic hermeneutics out of what are essentially ad hoc remarks and then drawing conclusions about Barth's exegesis on the grounds of these generalizations can lead one to distort his scriptural interpretation.
There is much to affirm here for it is certainly true that Karl Barth insisted on moving from the particular to the general and that there are dangers in drawing conclusions about his understanding of the exegetical task on the basis of generalizations rather than on the basis of his actual exegesis. (Barth was fond of saying "Latet periculum in generalibus!" "Danger lurks in generalities!" and this certainly applies to any discussion of his exegesis.) It is also true that Barth's thought is unsystematic in the sense that it is not governed by any system, and that he did not construct a systematic hermeneutics. But it is quite another matter, it seems to me, to characterize Barth's hermeneutic as basically "ad hoc" or to claim that he offers only "ad hoc hermeneutical principles." Barth's hermeneutic, on the contrary, as this study seeks to demonstrate on the basis of an examination of the Romerbrief period, can hardly be described as ad hoc. Indeed quite apart from where they came from or how he got them (which is the main reason they cannot be referred to as ad hoc), there are hermeneutical principles manifest in Barth's writings throughout this period, particularly in the prefaces to the various editions of his Romerbrief, and Barth defended these principles throughout his career.
Again, however, this is not to suggest that Barth had a systematic or what since Schleiermacher has been called a general hermeneutic. Nor is it to suggest that what sparked Barth's revolution was his discovery of a new method. To repeat, Karl Barth's theological revolution emerged in the summer of 1915 out of a single material insight which did not occur as a result of applying a priori hermeneutical principles. Yet what this study seeks to highlight is the fact that the immediate consequence of this single material insight was a new understanding of the exegetical task which is reflected in the first edition of his Romerbrief. The hermeneutical principles emerging out of Barth's new understanding of the exegetical task, in other words, cannot be understood apart from this single material insight, but they are sufficiently formal to warrant attention. It is important to emphasize that these principles are not hard and fast rules. They do not serve to predict the outcome of any piece of actual exegesis or even preclude the possibility of arriving at very different interpretations of the same text. But they do indicate how Barth approached the task of exegesis, and it is in closely examining these principles that we see as clearly as anywhere that Barth was indeed, as McCormack has said, "from first to last a theologian."
There are at least three reasons why this study is important. The first is because an in-depth study of the hermeneutical principles of Barth's Romerbrief period has yet to appear. A number of articles, dissertations, and book-length studies on Barth's exegesis have appeared in the German and English-speaking worlds in the last few decades.
Excerpted from Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis by Richard E. Burnett Copyright © 2004 by J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck) . Excerpted by permission.
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