A fascinating foray into Barth’s thought and the bewildering field of hermeneutics
By David Guretzki, Special to The Layman, derived as they were from the 19th and 20th liberal hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey (page 49).
An essential and unique feature of Burnett’s book is his careful examination of six unpublished drafts of Barth’s preface to the Römerbrief. Through this examination, Burnett manages to uncover the unspoken hermeneutical principles that informed Barth from the earliest part of his career. Though not all of these can be mentioned here, at least three important hermeneutical principles of Barth’s are worth noting.
First, Barth’s hermeneutic is dominated by his discovery that “God precedes all human questioning” and that “God is the fundamental hermeneutical problem, not the problem of human understanding” (page 49). Unlike his forebears (and many hermeneutical theorists even of today) who sought to develop a “general theory of hermeneutics” whereby universal rules of interpretation could be used in interpreting any text, including Scripture, Barth argued that such “rule-based” theories in essence bind or force God into a box. But reliance upon a general hermeneutical theory fails to acknowledge that God is utterly free and that He can only be approached in accordance to His own nature as a free God.
Thus, when it came to reading the Bible, Barth was convinced that the “content” (Die Sache) of the Bible was not the thoughts or intentions of the human authors themselves; rather, Burnett explains, for Barth “God is the ‘object’ of the Bible only to the extent that He is a Subject who must give Himself to us as object if He is to be known” (page 75). Because God is free, it cannot be assumed that God can be grasped using a hermeneutical method, but in faith one may assume that God gives himself to be known in and through the Bible as one who is the living Lord who cannot be frozen in human words and ideas.
This leads secondly to what Burnett identifies as Barth’s “most important hermeneutical principle,” mainly, that the Bible must be read “in accordance with its subject matter [sachlicher], content [inhaltlicher] and substance [wesentlicher]” (page 65). Here, Barth’s acceptance of the Bible as a “unified witness” is of paramount importance. Contrary to the opinion of his contemporary liberal scholars, Barth did not see the Bible as a collection of discordant voices speaking about a variety of subjects from various points of view, but as a “unified witness to whole, to a single subject matter, to one thing” (page 78) – namely, to God Himself.
The revolutionary feature of Barth’s hermeneutics, according to Burnett, is not that he suggested something new about what the Bible is about, but rather a clear understanding to whom the Bible bore witness (page 77). Consequently, the task of interpreting the Bible is to “think along,” “think after” or even more accurately, “think with” (Nachdenken) the author of the Biblical text (page 58), rather than “about” the author himself, as was commonly understood.
A third hermeneutical principle that Burnett discovers in the unpublished drafts to the Romans prefaces is Barth’s insistence that interpretation of the Bible means more than simply attempting to restate what the Bible meant to Paul or even means today. Rather, interpreters must “enter into” the meaning of the Bible themselves. Thus, scriptural exegesis does not aim at mere “cognitive understanding” of Scripture, but seeks to “participate” in the subject matter of which the Bible speaks. Scientific exegesis taught the interpreter to approach the scriptural text with a degree of suspicion and distrust in order to ensure a critical distance of the reader from the text.
In sharp contrast, Barth insisted that the posture of Biblical interpreters must be one of trust and seeking to become so close to the Biblical author that they almost forget that they are not the author! But as Burnett points out, this was the point at which Barth’s critics were most harsh, claiming that such an approach smacked of “hermeneutical hubris” (120)!
Unfortunately, this review can barely begin to acknowledge the signal accomplishment of Burnett’s excellent book. Despite the fact that the book is a reworked doctoral dissertation, Burnett manages to keep it readable, though obviously there is significant theological depth here for those wishing a challenge. There are some repetitive sentences and sections, and perhaps some of this could have been worked out at the editorial stage. But this minor imperfection does not detract from Burnett’s ability expertly to expound the nuances of Barth’s hermeneutic.
This is a fascinating study for those interested in Barth’s thought, to be sure, but in its own right provides a clear-headed foray into what can be the bewildering field of hermeneutics. Most importantly, Burnett may be pointing (via Barth) to what could well be an alternative path between the exegetical sterility of modernist methods of interpretation and the relativistic skepticism of much post-modern hermeneutics.
Dr. David Guretzki is an associate professor of theology and seminary dean at Briercrest Seminary in Caronport, Canada.