How does Barth ground his theological claims from the Bible? In what ways is Barth’s theology falsifiable?
David Ford’s Barth and God’s Story seeks to answer these interrelated questions through a sustained examination of Barth’s theological method and use of biblical narrative. The book started off as a doctoral dissertation written under Donald MacKinnon and Stephen Sykes at Cambridge University. First published in 1981, it has retained through its most recent edition the type-written print, hand-scrawled Greek, and (refreshing!) pithiness of a thesis written under the constraints of the pre-digital age. Wipf and Stock’s 2008 re-release of Ford’s book perhaps indicates a judgment that Ford’s short, ranging treatment of these questions continues to merit consideration, even beyond its usual labeling as a (step-)child of the “Yale school.” The paragraph that follows gives a bird’s-eye view of the book; the body of the review briefly summarizes individual chapters before concluding with some evaluative remarks.
Ford’s introduction proposes a new way of reading Barth’sChurch Dogmatics [CD]: as a comprehensive attempt to realize a “monism of the gospel story” (13), “an ascesis of Bible reading” whereby all theological claims are justified solely by recourse to biblical narratives (165). As such, Ford also claims to identify the place where Barth’s project ismost testable. Despite Barth’s suspicions about the susceptibility of “method” to human cooption, Ford insists that Barth arrives at his doctrinal conclusions by way of specific arguments from biblical materials—arguments with a definite profile and whose adequacy to their source is, in principle, measurable. Ford next gives an account of how Barth’s methodological insistence on sola scriptura developed (ch. 2). His third and fourth chapters demonstrate the uniquely literary character of Barth’s arguments from Scripture. Over against programs seeking theological authentication through historical-criticism, Barth’s use of the Bible parallels moves made in the literary criticism of novels. Ford then uses the technical vocabulary from this discipline to analyze Barth’s interpretation of biblical narrative, i.e., in terms of character, incident, perspective, figuration, etc. The subsequent four chapters give detailed case studies of Barth’s arguments from the (gospel) story to formulate major doctrines such as election, creation, the two natures, and time and eternity. A key organizing concept throughout this section is Bildungsroman, that is, a kind of novel in which typology swallows up realism and character absorbs background. Ford finds that Barth reads the gospels according to this genre (92). The concluding two chapters provide a fascinating and creative reflection on the “spirituality” of CD.
Ford’s first chapter situates his approach over against other ways of reading CD as a unity, which usually leverage one or another dogmatic locus (solus Christus, sola gratia, Trinity, eternity and time, etc.). Ford then mounts a threefold case for his own alternate focus on Barth’s interpretation of narrative: first, as ensuring chapters show more fully, Barth makes pivotal use of narrative in his theological argumentation. Second (at least at the time of his book’s composition), this remained an unexplored avenue of research. Third, if Ford is right that the persuasiveness of Barth’s whole project is most testable here, limning his use of narrative constitutes a great service to the ongoing evaluation of Barth’s legacy.
Chapter two begins with a long quote in which Barth tells of his effortless childhood sense for the contemporaneity of biblical events, a sensibility that would carry him through “the serried ranks of historicism and anti-historicism, mysticism and rationalism, orthodoxy, liberalism, and existentialism” (16). The rest of the chapter fills out the details of Barth’s navigation towards a “third way,” in particular between Troeltsch’s reliance on the theological verification of historical criticism on the one hand and an undisciplined subjectivism on the other. Ford cites here the influence of Wilhelm Herrmann: Barth appropriated from this teacher the principle of autopistia, according to which faith need not seek legitimation by criteria external to it. Barth, however, relocated the autonomous basis for faith from the consciousness of Jesus to the narrative surface of Scripture. According to Ford, this change was not immediate. Barth’s schematization of time and eternity in the Romans commentaries meant that he initially depended on mathematical imagery to describe God’s revelation in Jesus, and in CD I.1–2 he envisioned revelation along a strongly I-Thou axis. After CD I.2, however, “the mediation of the story becomes more pervasive, and the doctrine of revelation takes on many characteristics of a doctrine of providence”; that is, Barth’s “thinking after” (Nachdenken) the gospel story increasingly reflected its own patterned and mimetic character (24). Correspondence, analogy, typology, and other devices relating one portion of Scripture to another thus became integral to Barth’s biblical interpretation (25).
Through a detailed examination of CD IV.1, Ford’s third chapter pursues the question of what Barth intended by his complex claims about the historicity of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Ford finds that Barth made no attempt to substantiate the gospels’ stories by critical methods: critically reconstructed history (Historie) and history-as-presented (Geschichte) amount to the same thing for him (37). This lack of distinction freed Barth’s exegesis from apologetic concerns to operate along purely literary lines. At what point, then, do the gospels gain a different traction on reality than, say, a historical novel? Ford points to the resurrection of Jesus—the risen Christ—as the ultimate referent of the gospel accounts. Chapter four introduces the work of Peter Stern and Hans Frei to show the affinities of Barth’s interpretation with the literary criticism of realistic novels: as the gospels were for Barth, so, too, literary specialists deem realistic novels a mix of the empirical and the fictional arranged within a discernible patterning of meaning. Importantly, Ford proposes here that the realism of novels depends on their “middle distance” perspective, which he discerns to be “perhaps the most valuable single concept for clarifying Barth’s handling of narrative” (55). Characters are rendered within their literary setting. Historical criticism offends against the realism of novels (and the gospels) by zooming too far out and placing their meaning within a larger developmental account. The novelistic genreBildungsroman offends against realism in the opposite direction, by zooming too close and losing sight of the incident and background that prevent characters from becoming heavy-handed didactic symbols. By insisting on the historical realism of the gospels while also denying the meaning-brokering power of historical criticism, Ford says that Barth commits himself to this “middle distance” realism. These concepts—Bildungsoman and middle distance—become important critical fulcrums in the following chapters.
The next four chapters offer detailed examinations of Barth’s scriptural arguments for four dogmatic points. The first case study (ch. 5) on election and rejection is the longest because Barth’s self-consciousness about his theological novelty here compelled him to especially labored exegesis (72). Ford walks through CD II.2 to track Barth’s examples of election and rejection throughout the biblical corpus, even in seemingly far-flung passages such as levitical prescriptions about sacrificing birds (80). In all cases, Barth presses for unity, asking, “how [are we] to recognize ourselves simultaneously in both the one [rejection] and the other [election]” (ibid.)? He finds this unity in the ultimate coincidence of these principles in the person of Jesus Christ, the elected and rejected. Ford makes two interesting observations: first, this procedure (of tracing themes in the Bible that eventuate in the story of Jesus Christ) depends not so much on a doctrine of revelation but of providence, that is, history unfolding through meaningful patterns that reach their telos in Christ’s death and resurrection (81). Second, Ford claims that the role this reading procedure plays in Barth’s theology corresponds to natural theology or praeparatio evangelica in other theologies: these literary analyses pose an enigma (stated above) whose answer is Christ. The remainder of Ford’s chapter evaluates Barth’s famous exegesis of the Judas story. Ultimately Ford concludes that Barth’s reading of the Judas story “spoils [its] realism” (91). Barth’s heavy use of typology effectively envelops Judas’ rejection and election in the rejection and election of Christ. The particular, literal contour of the Judas stories thus disappears into the typological schema of rejection and election.
The second case study (ch. 6) examines Barth’s writings on creation in CD III.1. Barth reads the creation accounts as pure saga, but sees in them the introduction of themes that are fulfilled in Christ. For example, God’s name in Genesis 1, Yahweh Elohim, anticipates the ultimate coherence of creation and covenant in Jesus Christ (121). The creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 figures the priority and unity of Yahweh’s relation with Israel, this priority in unity again climaxing in the natures of Jesus Christ (121). Chapter seven studies the two natures of Christ. Ford argues that Barth cannot describe these natures by recourse to general conceptions of divinity and humanity but must develop them solely from the scriptural story. Barth thus reads the gospels on two tiers: as the story of God’s humiliation and the story of humanity’s exaltation, synonymous with Christ’s death and resurrection (128). A similar situation obtains for Barth’s doctrine of time and eternity, which also finds its footing in the two sequential moments of crucifixion and resurrection (ch. 8). Ford discovers in both chapters that literary methods that isolate patterns across the gospel story ground Barth’s doctrinal arguments. But Ford also thinks that by trying to make the gospel narrative answer every dogmatic question, Barth “overburdens” these accounts and strains their realism (146).
Chapter nine exposits the “spirituality” of CD, that is, the “way of life” to which Barth’s appropriation of the gospel leads. Ford sees in CD an “ascesis of Bible reading”—a vision for reality that does not take the biblical story from creation to parousia as its scaffolding. Rather, Barth makes the lifetime of Christ his ultimate theological basis, and figures all other histories into this, including those of the Bible, the world, and the Christian’s own life (165). Ford holds then that Barth provides a “distinctive spirituality of knowledge” that is more Hegelian than Kantian: “the involvement of men [sic] in the historical unfolding of the ratio of the immanent Trinity.” The result for Christian life is a twofold sense of “prior completion and personal presence” (169). At the end of this chapter and in his conclusion (ch. 10), Ford determines that the radical intensiveness of Barth’s theological dependence on the gospel narrative means that this narrative bears “a colossal weight under which it shows signs of twisting” (182).
Despite its regular citation in literature on Barth interpretation, I wonder if the book’s ambiguous theological location and wide-ranging ambition have impeded its reception. Composed by an Irish Anglican on the basis of research undertaken in three countries (USA, England, and Germany), the book’s preface pays equal homage to Hans Frei and Eberhard Jüngel, Donald MacKinnon, and Jürgen Moltmann. Its posture towards Barth is also complex: deeply sympathetic, finely attentive, but ultimately critical (the telltale plumage of a thwarted Barthian?). As for ambition, the book proposes a new way of envisioning the unity of the Church Dogmatics, namely, a procedural unity based on literary modes of argumentation from biblical narrative. The short, thick chapters of Barth and God’s Story throw their attention into sites of massive subsequent research and conflict in Barth interpretation, including Barth’s theological autobiography, the relation of Godin se and pro nobis, time and eternity, and the hermeneutical centrality of Christ’s resurrection. These factors—its heterogeneous pedigree and roving interests—both signal the book’s continued importance. It also may be that its intellectual ambit (Yale, Tübingen, Cambridge) has prevented Barth and God’s Storyfrom reaching the audience that might be most concerned with its central questions: namely, cautious American evangelical readers of Barth, who continue to ask, “does the Bible support this theologian?” Ford gives at least a more sophisticated “no” than is typically on offer.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.