Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Römerbrief Period

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Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period. By Richard E. Burnett. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 312 pp., $45.00.

Richard Burnett, who teaches theology at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, has given us a truly masterful analysis of Karl Earth's approach to biblical hermeneutics. Burnett contends that Barth effectively challenged the hermeneutics dominant in neo-Protestantism, especially that associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who wielded an enormous influence on the theological scene in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Schleiermacher's hermeneutical method is one of empathy: the goal is to enter the experience of the biblical authors in order to establish the relevance of the text in question. Schleiermacher subordinated the question of truth to the viability of method. It is not the "mind of Christ" that emerges as the overarching criterion in his theology, but the consciousness of God.

Burnett presents a cogent case that Barth overturned the hermeneutics of cultural Protestantism and recovered the concern for the truthfulness of the content of the biblical witness. In our exegesis we should begin not with the searchings and strivings of humanity but with the being of God, whose reconciling work in Christ comprises the theme or message of Scripture. For Barth as opposed to Schleiermacher, the real content of the Bible is not history nor morality nor piety, but God's redeeming act in Jesus Christ.

In his earlier writings Barth was still a child of liberalism-preoccupied with the heroes of biblical history rather than with the message of salvation revealed in Jesus Christ. For Barth in his maturity, revelation is in history but not of history; it is "Wholly Other" than human expectation and seeking. History does not disclose the meaning of revelation (as in liberal theology); instead, God's revelatory act in Jesus Christ discloses the meaning of history.

According to Barth, the theme of the Bible is not the consciousness of the authors and editors but the message of the text received by the Christian community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Schleiermacher proposes a divinatory interpretation in which the interpreter takes on the identity of the author. Barth favors a hermeneutics in which the interpreter bows before the subject matter of the text. For both Barth and Burnett, our task is not to cultivate a mystical awareness of the presence of God but to establish what is the objective and enduring meaning of the text. …