The Missing Link to Karl Barth’s Exegesis

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 I am excited to share that previously untranslated portions of Barth’s Lectures on John’s Gospel will be included as a bonus chapter for all pre-orders of Seeing by the Light! Here is how to get it.

And here is why you can’t miss out on it.  The unique contribution of Karl Barth’s Erklärung des Johannes-Evangeliums is its unprecedented look into the entirety of Barth’s theological method of interpretation. It is the missing link to his exegetical method. Although his commentary on Romans captured the attention of theologians and biblical scholars in the early 20th century and beyond, Romans only gave us a look at the “final product” of his interpretive method, as it were. At the publication of Romans and its subsequent editions, Barth suffered a maligning of his reputation as a biblical interpreter because he continually eschewed the higher critical contributions of his contemporaries.

The resulting impression was a scholar who was dismissed for his overly “pneumatic” readings, which appeared untethered from the conventional wisdom of the time. For this reason, Richard Burnett laments that Barth did not give a more thorough introduction to his interpretive method in his Romans commentaries. This introduction, he believes, would have headed these concerns off at the pass. Such an introduction would have communicated Barth’s profound appreciation for the historical-critical school and demonstrated the breadth of his inexhaustible knowledge of their findings.

This is precisely the contribution of Barth’s lectures on these first eight chapters of the fourth Gospel. Here, we are granted the opportunity to see his threefold interpretive method on full display—a process of observation, reflection, and appropriation.

In the first movement, Barth understood the work of the historical scholars as this preparatory work of observation. In the second movement—reflection—Barth’s aim was to then come face to face with the subject matter of the text itself, the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This could not so much be described by the interpreter as experienced. Finally, appropriation is the attempt of the interpreter to reproduce what has been heard from the Word within the words (that occurred in the second movement).  As with Romans, and other of Barth’s translated commentaries, we usually only receive the results of this third step. This left Barth’s foundation in biblical studies on questionable grounds.

Whether it was because demonstrating his entire interpretive process in a single volume commentary was unmanageable, or because Barth saw his work as building upon the groundwork already laid by historians, it was the format of theological Erklärung that afforded him space to give us the full treatment, as it were. In either case, I am beyond excited for you to witness not only Barth’s mastery of historical-critical studies, but to also experience his impressive knowledge of reformation and post-reformation scholastic biblical interpretation. It is redemptive for his reputation as a rigorous interpreter of scripture and the Erklärung as a whole is an exceptional sampling of his interpretive method.

In what follows, I offer a translation of the portions of Erklärung des Johannes-Euangeliums that are most relevant for the project of Seeing by the Light. This includes his commentary on John 2:23-3:21, 4:1-42, and portions of his commentary on 8:12ff. Through his translation, you will encounter 4 key characteristics of his method of theological interpretation in John.

  1. As already alluded, Barth speaks of higher-critical work as essential to interpretation, but only as prolegomena to understanding. Understanding the world around and behind the text is preparation for interpretation, but it is not interpretation itself.
  2. Barth privileges the biblical and canonical context of scripture over the historical context. He also privileges the context of scripture over its resemblance in comparative religious texts.
  3. Barth understands a dialectical relationship between the literal/historical/grammatical sense of the text and its theological sense. That is to say, the literal, historical, and grammatical assumptions that we make about the text do not only inform the theological conclusions of interpretation, but Barth recognizes we all also bring theological assumptions to the text that inform our literal, historical, and grammatical conclusions as well.
  4. Finally, and most notably, you will see that Barth reads scripture in communion with the whole history of the church’s interpretive tradition. All of these characteristics of his interpretive approach are explored further in Seeing by the Light, but it is helpful by way of introduction, to make you familiar with them here.

In the end, this entire masterpiece is a tour-de-force both of interpretive method and interpretive practice, which Barth desired never to be done in isolation from one another. For all of these reasons, and many more, I am pleased to offer these portions of Barth’s lectures in English for the first time. Take up and Enjoy!

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