Karl Barth and Reformed Theological Hermeneutics of Scripture

To begin, Barth’s constructive understanding of Reformed theological hermeneutics of Scripture is in direct dialogue with Friedrich Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. This means, then, that Schleiermacher is undoubtedly in the background to Barth’s hermeneutics, particularly with respect to the influence of Schleiermacher delineation of hermeneutics into grammatical interpretation (general hermeneutics) and psychological interpretation (specialized hermeneutics).

As George Stroup describes in his Reformed Reader, prior to the nineteenth century, hermeneutics was predominantly a franchise grounded in applying a series of grammatical rules to a text in order to interpret it—in the nineteenth century with Schleiermacher leading the way, hermeneutics “came to be understood in terms of the much broader process of Verstehen, or ‘understanding.’”[1] For Schleiermacher, the hermeneutist must employ both grammatical interpretations and psychological interpretations, where effective hermeneutics, as such, must embody a measured balance between both general and specialized hermeneutics respectively. So, for Schleiermacher, interpretation is an art, not just on the whole by way of striking a measured balance between the general and the specialized, but each side is itself an art.”[2] This sense of interpretation being an art is precisely what Barth rejects, which becomes an entry point in Barth’s hermeneutics proper.

Not only does Barth reject, as Stroup writes, “the notion of a general or philosophical theory of hermeneutics [but] insist[s] that the interpretation of the Bible is governed by the name the Bible proclaims, that is, Jesus Christ.”[3] But, more specifically, Barth rejects any grammatical and psychological interpretations of the Bible, as found in Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics, in favor of the content of Scripture itself. To this end, Barth’s hermeneutics is simply predicated on the content of Scripture and the extent to which only from the content of Scripture “can it become really intelligible.”[4] What is inherent in this understanding, of course, is Barth’s distinguishing between the human word and the Word of God. The former is not, as Barth argues, a “direct impartation” but is an expression of genuine witness. From this, it is possible to suggest that Barth would be reluctant to think of hermeneutics in a general way, or with respect to grammatical rules—this would make sense, since grammatical rules are human linguistic constructions and, therefore, can certainly not be constructions applied to the Word of God. In addition, Barth’s rejection of a “philosophical” approach to hermeneutics, or Schleiermacher’s “psychological side,” is apparent in Barth’s understanding of the written word being a level removed from the Word of God—it is the extent to which any “psychological understanding” on our part becomes problematic and impossible, since the written word is a secondhand account of the Word of God itself by those that are “genuine witnesses” to the Word of God itself.

Barth’s hermeneutics is based on the Word of God itself. It is chiefly concerned with a primordial understanding of what the Bible is and what the Bible does. This is the main feature of Barth’s constructive understanding of Reformed theological hermeneutics—his is a concern with, again, the primordial. This chief concern is, on one hand, about the overarching intersectionality of Scripture, inspiration, authority, and/or interpretation, but, on the other, is invested in the intersectionality of the Word of God, the object of witness, and the proclamation of the name Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Barth’s constructive understanding of Reformed theological hermeneutics is concerned with a primordial understanding about Scripture. In other words, what makes Barth especially “Reformed” is that his hermeneutics is not satisfied with the contemporary status quo—that is, the development hermeneutics up to the first half of the twentieth century—but, rather, he is interested in uncovering a more pure, more primordial notion of hermeneutics. This kind of hermeneutics, as such, can be described as “Reformed,” since it is steeped in change, rethinking, and modification.

Accordingly, Barth’s hermeneutics is “Reformed” because it seeks truth in hermeneutics, by using a “Reformed” approach to unconceal what traditional/historical hermeneutics has inadvertently concealed—for example, the concealment of the Bible as being the actual Word of God, when it is the human word relayed to humanity through genuine witness.

———————

[1] 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), 28-29.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid.

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