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Burnett, Richard E.
Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis. The Hermeneutical Principals of the Römerbrief Period.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001. XV, 312 S. 8 = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 145. Kart. Euro 49,00. ISBN 3-16-147677-8.
Mark D. Chapman
Despite the spelling mistake in the subtitle, which should read "principles", and the frequent poor copy-editing (where material from one page is frequently repeated at the top of the following page), this is a thorough and detailed account of Barth's early hermeneutics. It breaks new ground for English-speakers in making available translations of the different drafts of the preface to the Romans Commentary. These are found in the second appendix (277-292). The overall aim of the book is to contrast the so-called liberal mode of hermeneutics with its emphasis on empathy, stemming from Schleiermacher and exemplified later by Dilthey, with the hermeneutics of the Word of God. There is a sense of dispensationalism throughout the book where 1915 marks the dawn of a new era, when the historical-critical method was finally cast off in favour of a method which aimed to get to the substance or subject-matter (Sache) of the text. Not surprisingly, the author regards "Karl Barth's break with liberalism in the summer of 1915" as "the most important event that has occurred in theology in over two hundred years" (1). Like most commentators on the post-First World War period, however, he spends remarkably little time discussing the nature of liberalism, which makes it all too easy to overlook the continuities with what went before. Thus, while admitting that there were similarities between Barth and Herrmann, and even that Herrmann helped Barth discover the "Sachlichkeit of the biblical Sache", Burnett makes the usual (purely rhetorical) dismissal of Herrmann on account of his support for Germany's war aims in 1914 (70).
Barth's discovery of "the new world of the Bible" in 1915 matured into the radical form of hermeneutics of the Römerbrief, which the author regards, like Gadamer, as a "virtual hermeneutical manifesto" (4.203). B. tries to flesh out this comment by looking in detail at Barth's method of interpretation in contrast to the alternatives on offer, some of which he had found attractive earlier in his career. Barth's Römerbrief, he contends, "fell like a bombshell, ... not because it fell into a so- called vacuum, but because it challenged the most influential hermeneutical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (49). Against general hermeneutics with its tendency to broaden the scope of interpretation so that the Bible was read like any other book, Barth wanted to limit hermeneutics solely to the subject-matter of the text which made it different from all other texts for one simple reason: the subject-matter of the Bible is the truth. Central for understanding this truth is the notion of participating in the subject-matter. There is thus a sense in which true history is the creation of the interpreter's synthetic shaping of the chaos of events around a single theme, but a theme given by revelation. Indeed, nothing else can ever liberate the interpreter from the senselessness of the past.
Despite this, however, the author claims that Barth was not a historical sceptic, not part of any "anti-historical revolution", although no reasons are given for this assertion. If the anti-historical revolution is the attempt to escape the conclusions of the historical-critical method, and discover a meaning that is not dependent on the vagaries of a history in which there are ultimately no certainties, then Barth's understanding of the priority of revelation, which overcomes history by making the past simultaneous with the present, provides a certainty which no amount of historical research can ever shake: "the differences between then and now ... have no significance for what really matters". For this reason, Barth could make the bold claim (which earned him much criticism) that he had almost forgotten that he was not the author of the Epistle to the Romans. God's Word was as present to him as it was to Paul and the power of the Word overcame the limitations of the interpreter. Thus, as Barth wrote, Romans "becomes a letter to me and a letter which I must now write to the people of Göttingen and to anyone who will listen" (cited on 258).
Chapter Five offers a lengthy discussion of Paul Wernle's psychologizing theology, which Barth dismissed as missing the point, since, for him, faith was historically and psychologically irreducible. The subject-matter of theology was neither religion nor experience, but the Word of God which simply could not be reduced to any worldly experience, but instead always remained "Wholly Other". The author then presents a short and useful history of the empathetic hermeneutical tradition of Schleiermacher, Dilthey and the young Barth. Prior to 1915, he claims, Barth was a Romantic, for whom the essence of religion was in individual experience. Barth turned away from this understanding after 1915 towards a hermeneutics of love and trust, which was simultaneously a conversion from Romanticism to Sachlichkeit. What was important in hermeneutics was not the religious personality or hero, but the message itself: for all one could tell, Paul was an "insufferable eccentric". In Chapter Six, B. discusses the meaning of the Bible, and again points to Barth's contention that the Bible is not an assemblage of pious feelings, but an alien word which stands over and against all human words. The author concludes with a brief discussion of the serpent's words in paradise as an illustration of Barth's method: what was important was what the serpent said, not what the speaking serpent might have looked like. It is the text itself that is important and not what lies behind it.
Throughout the book, B. is keen to see Barth's work not simply as an arbitrary imposition on the text of scripture by a supremely creative genius, but as something capable of moving us closer to the Sache of the text, that is, to the Word of God himself (35). Consequently, this is no work of dispassionate theological history, but rather the author sees Barth (sometimes in very purple prose) as answering the great problems facing theologians in the (post-)modern era (e. g. 261). However, as in so much of the secondary literature on Barth, there is a sense in which Barth himself is elevated into a hero, into the charismatic leader whose words take on a truth which can make the interpreter blind to their underlying rhetoric. It is all too easy to be caught up by the prose and even to believe the charges Barth made against those he considered his theological opponents, without giving them the benefit of a proper hearing. As B. reminds us, Barth at one point compared the preface to the Römerbrief to a boxing bout between Dempsey and Carpentier (cited on 20), which ought to make the Barth-commentator mildly suspicious of the text itself: up against the bantamweight Barth would always win, but it has to be asked whether he was always fighting fair. Boxers, after all, are not given to sympathetic understandings of their opponents, and often seek to demonize those with whom they often have so much in common. Despite B.'s impressive breadth of reading, he offers remarkably little analysis of Barth's own theological style. That said, this is a useful and wide-ranging book which might encourage readers to look once again at the early Barth, and perhaps even at those figures usually dismissed as liberals.