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

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

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

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


Foreword by Bruce McCormack

For many students of Scripture and Christian theology, Karl Barth's break with liberalism is the most important event that has occurred in theology in over 200 years. In Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis Richard E. Burnett provides the first detailed look at this watershed event, showing how Barth read the Bible before and after his break with liberalism, how he came to read the Bible differently than most of his contemporaries, and why Barth's contribution is still significant today.

As Burnett explains, the crux of Barth's legacy is his abandonment of the hermeneutical tradition of Schleiermacher, which had had such a profound influence on Christian thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This hermeneutical tradition, which began with Herder and extended through Dilthey, Troeltsch, Wobbermin, Wernle, and Barth himself prior to 1915, is characterized by its attempt to integrate broad aspects of interpretation, to establish universally valid rules of interpretation on the basis of a general anthropology, and by its reliance on empathy.

Barth's discovery that "the being of God is the hermeneutical problem" implied that the object to be known should determine the way taken in knowing. This fundamental insight brought about a hermeneutical revolution that gave priority to content over method, to actual exegesis over hermeneutical theory. The development of Barth's new approach to Scripture is especially evident in his Römerbrief period, during which he developed a set of principles for properly reading Scripture. Burnett focuses on these principles, which have never been discussed at length or viewed specifically in relationship to Schleiermacher, and presents a study that challenges both "neo-orthodox" and "postmodern" readings of Barth.

This is a crucial piece of scholarship. Not only is it the first major book in English on Barth's hermeneutics, but it also employs pioneering research in Barth studies. Burnett includes in his discussion important material only recently discovered in Switzerland and made available here in English for the first time -- namely, six preface drafts that Barth wrote for his famous Romans commentary, which some regard as the greatest theological work of all time.

In making a major contribution to Barth studies, this volume will also inform scholars, pastors, and students whose interests range from modern Christian theology to the history of biblical interpretation.


The hermeneutics of Karl Barth have never been well understood in the English-speaking world. Two major interpretive approaches dominated the scene up through the mid-1990s. the first, reflecting a preoccupation with the debates over demythologization in the 1950s, began with the assumption that Barth’s hermeneutics can best be understood through a comparison with Rudolf Bultmann. the glaring weakness of this approach was that Barth’s hermeneutics were not allowed to become a subject of interest in their own right. the focus was too narrow, too restrictive, to allow that to happen. Barth’s early exegetical work was of some interest – but only insofar as it could be shown to have influenced Bultmann in the same period. and his later reflections were dismissed by means of labels like “revelational hermeneutics.” This was the approach favored by theological ‘liberals.’ It was typically wedded to a depiction of Barth’s theological development which posited a shift away from dialectical theology towards a dogmatic theology grounded in a method of analogy around 1931 – which strengthened the tendency towards dismissal of Barth’s later hermeneutical reflections as the product of a ‘neo-orthodox’ or kerymatic theologian.

When a reaction finally set in to this one-sided approach, it made itself guilty of a new one-sidedness. the so-called ‘Yale School’, reacting against the almost exclusive concentration of ‘liberals’ on Barth’s theoretical statements on hermeneutics, looked almost completely away from such statements in order to focus attention upon Barth’s actual exegesis of Scriptural passages. in defense of this procedure, it was frequently pointed out that Barth himself had said that the proper order was first exegesis and then hermeneutics (as an a posteriori reflection on a prior engagement with texts). But such a defense fails to convince. Once Barth has done the work of reflecting on the hermeneutics implicit in his exegetical procedures, ought we not to take such theoretical statements seriously? We might wish to repeat the experiment, passing through his exegesis to his ‘theory’ to see if the ‘theory’ is justified by his practice. But surely, that would still require close attention to the ‘theory’ as well? More often that not, however, the Yale theologians contented themselves with teasing their own theories out of Barth’s exegetical practice. Not surprisingly, given their preoccupation with exegesis, they regularly concluded that Barth really had no hermenhermeneutics were strictly ad hoc in character; the description of strategies devised for use in relation to particular textual challenges without . . .

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