Karl Barth and “Old Princeton Theology”

Karl Barth rethinks the Reformed tradition on Scripture, inspiration, authority, and/or interpretation in direct opposition, first and foremost, to “Old Princeton Theology” of the late nineteenth century. As a hermeneutical movement, “Old Princeton Theology,” with Charles Hodge as an important representative figure, argued that the Bible was without error due to God’s authorship of it. As a result, for Hodge and other figures of “Old Princeton Theology,” the Bible contains truths. These “truths,” as Hodge describes in his Systematic Theology published in 1872-1873, become the theologian’s chief concern, where “the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.”[1] In one sense, Hodge’s view can be described as scientific and empirical—the role of the theologian, as Hodge describes in the above, is similar to that of a scientist, since the theologian must engage theology as a science. On the other hand, Hodge’s view is particularly predicated on a, explicit positivist approach to hermeneutics, one that is grounded on the Bible being a totality of facts capable of building a hermeneutical case.[2]

Hodge’s deeply positivist, scientific, and empirical approach to the Bible undergirded with Biblical infallibility or inerrancy is ultimately in the background to Barth’s rethinking of the Reformed tradition on Scripture, inspiration, authority, and/or interpretation. Though Barth agrees, in theory, with Hodge and “Old Princeton Theology” about the authority of Scripture, Barth’s point of departure and reconceptualization is with praxis. In effect, Barth is more concerned with what the Bible does. For Barth, what makes the Bible authoritative is not because of what it is (that is, in theory), but precisely because of what it does or how it functions (in praxis). To be clear, Barth does not dispute the authority of the Bible but, rather suggests that that authority is housed in what the Bible does as, in George Stroup’s words, “the unique and indispensable witness to Jesus Christ.”[3]

With this in mind, it is clear that Barth does finds value in conceptualizing the Bible as authoritative, but, for Barth, this conceptualization needs some constructive rethinking. What Barth is undeniably pushing back against is the sentiment that the authority of the Bible is both in reference to what it is and what it does. It is the notion that what the Bible is and what the Bible does are inextricably linked within the Bible’s authoritativeness. Though this kind of constructive thinking is an important way to understand the Bible as the intersectionality of Scripture, inspiration, authority, and/or interpretation, Barth’s need to rethink this constructive approach arises from what is missing in that original construction: genuine witness. As Stroup points out, Barth believes that “the Bible is not a book of oracles,” and furthermore, in Barth’s own words, “…it is not an instrument of direct impartation. It is genuine witness.”[4]

At the heart of Barth’s argument is the necessity to separate the Bible from the Word of God. Barth argues that these two elements (under the overarching intersectionality of Scripture, inspiration, authority, and/or interpretation) have been conflated in the earlier Reformed tradition, especially up to and including “Old Princeton Theology” of the late nineteenth century. Barth is very much invested in separating the Word of God from the human word. Or, in another sense, these can be explained in terms of the spoken Word of God and the written word of man. Barth believes that the latter does not replace or substitute for the former, since the latter. That is, the latter, or the Bible itself, cannot replace or substitute the former, the Word of God. Barth is clear about this, arguing the following: “the mere presence of the Bible and our own presence with our capacities for knowing an object does not mean and never will mean the reality or even the possibility of the proof that the Bible is the Word of God.”[5] It is this situation—which I would call an epistemological situation—is one that we must recognize as being liminal, where our ability to prove that the Bible is the Word of God is impossible. Barth argues this, and more importantly, seems be aware that the Bible itself, as the written word made by man, is one level removed from the Word of God.

Such a sentiment, as found in Barth, is quite similar to Derrida’s notion in Of Grammatology that writing is a language level removed from the spoken word. Of course, I do concede that it is necessary to say that Derrida is not making a theological argument, but he does, nevertheless, employ a very theocentric understanding of the spoken word as “Being” and the written word as a distillation, corruption, or pollution of “Being” into “being.” Perhaps, Derrida would balk at my suggestion of his theocentric understanding. Yet, in the distinction Derrida draws between ontological language (the written word) and metaphysical language (the spoken word) is certainly framed from the top-down. This top-down approach is found in Barth.    Granted, Barth does not assess the written word in the same manner as Derrida—one major point of difference is evident in the fact that the former has the aims of theologian while the latter’s aims are at those of a philosopher. To be sure, both of them have different agendas and, though Derrida’s agenda is highly influenced by Heidegger’s hermeneutics, it is safe to say that Barth is not as influenced in the same way. That is, Barth would likewise balk at my finding any Heideggerian leanings in his hermeneutics. But, I do see in Barth a Derridian understanding about the differences between the written word and the spoken word. It is the former that Barth believes “is not an instrument of direct impartation [but rather] it is genuine witness.”

For Barth, then, the Bible, as the written word, is an indirect impartation. In other words, it is not the direct Word of God, but is the Word of God witnessed to writers that have written the Word of God. Essentially, those that written the Word of God are intermediaries between the Bible as the manifestation of ontological language and the Word of God, as the ultimate metaphysical language. Again, there are traces of Derrida in such an understanding. Just as Derrida would argue that writing, in any form, is only an “indirect impartation” of the spoken word, Barth is operating in a corresponding manner about the Bible’s “is-ness” and “what it ought to be.” The Bible becomes, as Barth rightly argues, “by its very presence, by the fact that we can read it [something that] gives us a hearty faith in the Word of God spoken in it.”[6] Accordingly, what undergirds Barth’s understanding of the written word of the Bible is that it is “purely human word [since] it can be subjected to all kinds of immanent criticism, not only in respect to its philosophical, historical and ethical content, but even of its religious and theological.”[7] In this way, what lies at the core of Barth’s rethinking is the sense that the Word of God cannot be accurately captured by the human word. As a result, our ability to read what has been captured by the human word of those were genuine witnesses of the Word of God leaves us not just one level removed from the Word of God but, I would argue, two levels removed.


[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1872), 1.

[2] With “totality of facts” and “a hermeneutical case,” I am specifically thinking about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s articulation of this in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I am condensing Wittgenstein I am condensing a series of claims made by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Though this work is much more positivist than Wittgenstein’s later work and, by extension, re-thought through Wittgenstein’s later work with language, this early work makes very interesting positivistic propositions. One by one, these propositions are as follows: 1.) the world is everything that is the case, 2.) the world is the totality of facts, not of things, 3.) the world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts, 4.) for the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case, and 5.) the facts in logical space are the world. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, Inc. 1922), 31.

[3] George Stroup, ed., Reformed Reader: A Sourcebook in Christian Theology: Volume 2 Contemporary Trajectories, 1799 to the Present (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 17.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 22.


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