August 4, 2008
A Barthian Hermeneutic of Modesty
In Church Dogmatics IV.4, p. 110-11, Barth is in the midst of wrestling with the doctrine of baptism, and particularly the question of whether the NT texts adduced for its being a sacrament do indeed warrant that claim. Then he has a section that is worth considering with regard to biblical interpretation and theological hermeneutics in general:
The expositor must be aware that even when he interprets scripturam per scripturam he is still interpreting. He is not expounding as it were from heaven or in terms of an absolutely assured self-understanding. The results of no exegesis can claim to be completely self-evident. In every case findings can be published only with the statement that in this or that text, according to the view and well-considered judgment of the expositor, with a high or small, or perhaps a higher and even the highest degree of probability, this or that is to be read or not read. No exegetical method either has been or is infallible. To be sure, each age in Church history, and in each age each school (including the heterodox and those disparaged on other grounds), has had and has, in its particular method, its own special possibilities of approximating to what the Old and New Testaments actually say, at some points to its advantage, at others to its disadvantage, as compared with other ages and other schools. There never has been nor can be any question of more than possibilities of approximation. Happy is the expositor who can have a least relative certainty at any point! No one should boast that he has said the last word, that he has spoken with absolute accuracy or authority, on any text. No one should laud another for so doing. The more definitely an expositor thinks he has found or not found this or that in a text, the more sharply he should let the question be put to him whether he has not been too clever and found too much, or too obtuse and found too little; whether he has not found what is not there, or perhaps failed to find what is. This does not have to imply uncertainty in respect of his findings if he goes his way resolutely, circumspectly and with a good conscience. Why should he not dare to proclaim what he has found, to give the reasons which have led him to it, to test whether or how far the findings and the reasons will speak for themselves to others? What is implied is the modesty with which the expositor is ready to examine his results afresh and to subject them to the scrutiny of others. In the meantime, however, he is provisionally directed and authorized to base his further thinking on these findings. All this is to be expressly noted and stipulated in advance in relation to our study of the New Testament texts which are so commonly and impressively adduced in favor of a sacramental understanding of baptism, and in relation to the results of this study. (Karl Barth, CD IV.4, pp. 110-11)
There’s much to meditate on here, but I’ll settle on the following:
At IVP Academic we’ve had many a discussion over the years about whether “yet another” commentary series is necessary. I’m sure other religious publishing houses have the same discussions. Barth offers the gist of an apologia for the continued writing and publishing of commentaries. Though I would argue that there are other considerations to be weighed, Barth’s reasoning registers heavily on my editorial scales. He’s telling us why we cannot simply conclude, on purely pragmatic or marketing grounds, that no more commentaries (or exegetical studies) are needed. (Though perhaps a moratorium would be appropriate, to allow us to catch up!)
This is a reminder that even though one writes an exceedingly long Dogmatics, including extended fine-print sections on biblical texts, one might still be acutely conscious (in old age, looking back on it all?) of the frailty of our human understanding. The one with the longest list of publications doesn’t necessarily “win.”
It is also a reminder that those with lesser talents than Barth should perhaps have greater modesty in setting forth their interpretations.
And I like Barth’s encouragement (born of experience!) not to let the elusive goal of “assured results” bully us into silence. Proclaim what you find! With modesty.