Karl Barth’s theology and exegesis is often debated. I love him in places, I disagree with him in places. I agree with others’ exegesis of his exegesis, I disagree with others’ views on him. But one thing we should all appreciate is his ability to synthesize theology and exegesis in such a way that even when there is disagreement with him, the counterargument had better eat its Wheaties before coming to the table.
Paul McGlasson rightly lamented that Karl Barth’s exegesis in his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics (CD), has not only been misunderstood and/or maligned, but also straight up neglected by scholars. In his opinion, this is a result of Barth’s theological-exegetical method, a blend of biblical theology and systematic theology that scholars in neither field wish to tackle. He concludes:
“The result is that, for scholars of theology, the work is too ‘biblical,’ while for scholars of the Bible the work is too ‘theological.’ The resulting fate of Barth’s biblical exegesis is in a way not really surprising. At least part of Barth’s reason for doing extended biblical exegesis in the context of Christian theology was to wage a direct assault on the bifurcation of scholarly work into two such separated disciplines. Theology, for Barth, should again be biblical in a technical, disciplined sense, and likewise should study of the Bible be disciplined by confessional theological concerns. The immediate result of this assault on the bifurcation of theological disciplines was that at least this part of Barth’s work simply attracted no scholarly attention.”
Indeed, Barth was a rigorous exegete both in his commentaries, his other writings, and in CD. However, this did not come without keen theological insights and overtones. He was a rare hybrid whose method was not entirely hermeneutical nor entirely theological. He was a confessional theologian, with a heavy focus on Christ as he exegeted Scripture. If Christ was and is the point of God’s revelation, then he can be seen everywhere in the canon.
In the end, then, Christ becomes the overwhelmingly central point of both theology and exegesis, making the two inseparable for Barth.
Revelation and the Word of God
For Barth, Scripture is “one long celebration of the fact that God speaks, and that as God speaks he opens himself up to us, giving us a share in his life through Christ and the Spirit.” He put it this way: “God gives himself entirely to man in his revelation, but not in such a way as to make himself man’s prisoner. He remains free in his working, in giving himself.” This divine speech is the lead component for understanding Barth’s views on revelation. For him, knowing God is, in short, unattainable. The unattainable is only attainable by God’s self-revelation, a freely chosen action in no way dependent upon man.
God’s Word can only be attributed to God himself as a witness to himself, not in historical formulations or provable assertions concerned with precise correspondence. For if man could simply “prove” the truth of God’s revelation by some scientific method, there would be no need for faith. Faith accepts the claims of Scripture that seem unbelievable to the arrogant human mind.