Among the numerous books and essays in recent years discussing Karl Barth’s hermeneutics, Donald Wood’s contribution, a “slightly revised” version of his dissertation under John Webster, is more of the same. His work, by his own account, is distinguished by its “straightforward” analysis of some of Barth’s material on the topic. It is constructive to the extent that it takes Barth’s theology as a whole into consideration and explores the way that Barth’s theology of interpretation is connected with his work on Christian doctrine. Wood’s aim is to provide an aid to scholarly constructive work on hermeneutics by doing the preliminary work of “simply attending to what Barth had to say” (xi). Wood calls his work modest in both “proportion and aspiration.” Accordingly, he has “simply tried to understand something of what Barth had to say about the nature of the scriptural text, the identity of its readers, and the relationship between them” (ix).
Wood’s survey begins with an analysis of Barth’s “The New World in the Bible” lecture, the first two editions of Barth’s Romans commentary, two lecture series on historical theology, and his prolegomena to the Göttingen Dogmatics. From there Wood moves on to Barth’s history of modern Protestant theology, Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert in chapter two. The final two chapters are a close reading of the prolegomena material in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. The surveys in chapters one and two serve the greater purpose of the book, which is to help understand the theology of interpretation in CD I. Wood’s “self-appointed limitations” to his work aside, his thesis in the first chapter is that there is an overlooked and significant continuity in the early period of Barth’s work, namely, his “intense engagement with scripture” at both the material and the methodological levels (1). Wood is here critical of Bruce McCormack’s work on Barth’s early development, noting that McCormack has made peripheral what Barth proclaimed as central: scripture reading and commentary. Wood suggests that McCormack does not take into account the questions raised by Barth’s claim that his Romans commentary was in fact a commentary and a piece of real biblical exegesis. Wood does not offer anything more by way of engagement with McCormack except in giving a few oft-cited quotes from Barth’s response to his hermeneutical critics in preface to the Romans commentary. We must view Barth as a reader of scripture, Wood concludes.
While not providing a particularly new reading of Barth’s “The New World in the Bible,” Wood’s analysis is carefully executed as he highlights that Barth’s “restatement of the scripture principle within a Trinitarian doctrine of revelation” shows his work in CD I and the 1917 lecture to be “two points on a single theological trajectory” (10). In his survey of the two editions of the Romans commentary, Wood’s most important point is that Barth’s reactions against historical-critical work in the commentary are driven fundamentally by a “spiritual-theological” emphasis on the freedom of God and the primacy of God’s act in Jesus Christ. Wood then highlights how Barth’s growing affinity with the Reformed tradition during his time in Göttingen led to a watershed in his hermeneutical reflections, especially with reference to the connection between the unique ethical impulse of Calvinism and the Reformed emphasis on the Protestant scripture principle in his lectures on Calvin and the Reformed Confessions. Barth’s growing articulation of a Trinitarian doctrine of revelation in which the scripture principle is central, as well as his emphasis on the distinction between revelation and scripture made most clear in the use “witness” in conceptualizing scripture’s role in relation to the self-revealing God, is discerned by Wood in the prolegomena to Barth’s Göttingen dogmatic lectures.
Perhaps the most interesting section of Wood’s volume comes in the second chapter as he treats the connection between Barth’s discourse on modernity, and his hermeneutical and historiographical work. As Wood points out, there has been relatively little study of Barth’s history of modern. By offering a close reading the first chapter, Wood discovers again Barth’s urging that reading be done always in the context of the church. He puts his finger on why Barth feels free to approach scripture without being particularly worried by various modern hermeneutical preoccupations. Because Barth, as a reader of scripture, holds himself to be “radically implicated by the subject matter” of scripture, he can view the authors of scripture as witnesses rather than sources (63). The authors stand in the same relation to the subject matter of their text as does Barth. Barth’s understanding of appropriate responsibility, humility and faithfulness in the work of engaging the history of theology is grounded in nothing other than the church’s existence in relationship to God and the world. Wood connects this to the proper approach for scriptural interpretation: just as the act of historiography is an act of responsibility, humility and faith for Barth, so is theological interpretation. Barth resisted the modern development of general hermeneutics by refusing “to concede that the early modern history of violent interpretative conflict is either (as a historical reality) resistant to theologically and politically responsible description or (as a historiographical construct) a value-neutral narrative to which Christian theology must answer” (98). One ought not to approach scripture with unwavering confidence in one’s own interpretative skills; this is neo-Pelagianism. Rather, Barth assumes God is authoritative in scripture, to which the church gratefully responds in faith and trust in Christ’s promise to be with the church in the witness of scripture. The church seeks to hear the Word, by, through, in and under which it has its life.
Both of the previous chapters lead up to the final two chapters “designed to provide an orientation to the doctrinal account of scriptural reading in the first volume of the Church Dogmatics” (100). Chapter three focuses on the theological necessity of scriptural interpretation, while chapter four focuses on the shape of theological interpretation as the church’s act of obedience. The conclusions drawn about Barth’s trajectory in the first chapter are pursued here by way of a close reading of the first four chapters of CD I. Wood continually stresses that we must acknowledge just how much Barth presupposes the scripture principle throughout this material. He argues further that Barth prevents the scripture principle from becoming a norm lacking in content by placing it firmly within a Trinitarian doctrine of revelation. The hermeneutical implications for Barth flow from his doctrinal arguments. Thus, it is through the reality of God’s hiddenness in revelation that scriptural interpretation is both possible and necessary. Wood describes Barth’s doctrine of scripture as, in part, a response to those who think the Protestant scripture principle abstracts the text from the life of the church, and in so doing distinguishes his own interpretation of it in from that of either modern Protestant or Roman Catholic accounts.
By Wood’s own acknowledgment, the fourth and final chapter is a “laborious reading” of several passages at the end of Church Dogmatics I that respond to the Roman Catholic objection to the Protestant emphasis onsola scriptura. Again, Wood does not argue anything substantively new, instead reiterating the previously established point that as scripture is the written witness of revelation, it is also the basic condition of the church’s obedience. Furthermore, as a model of obedience, scripture is a guide to shape the church’s obedience. Yet again, Wood argues that this is another angle from which Barth emphasizes the Protestant scripture principle. “The church is obedient to the Word of God in scripture alone; responsible to the church fathers and to the confessions; and neutral with regard to all other voices” (161). At the same time, however, scripture alone is the principle by which the church also has its freedom. Speaking of scripture itself, Wood summarizes from Barth that “as free subject in the power of the resurrected Christ, scripture is free to found, preserve, and rule the church” (166). As the chapter concludes, Wood admits that this final chapter has ultimately arrived at the same place as the previous chapters, although by a different route:
The church’s hearing of the Word and the work of scriptural interpretation that attends it are finally to be understood as realities in the life of the people of God who wills to be our gracious Lord in the humility of the incarnation, in the glory of the resurrection, and in the outpouring of the Spirit; who has chosen to rule his church through the written witness of the prophets and apostles, in a determinate, canonical text which represents formally his own material sovereignty and objectivity over the church; who has chosen to be present to the world through the church’s scripture-based proclamation; and who, while choosing to reserve for himself the prerogative of judging the adequacy of this proclamation, allows his church to live towards this judgment in prayer and in dogmatic self-reflection (174).
In his conclusion, Wood advertises that the limitations of his study are now clearer than ever, and – in his summary of the observations he made throughout the book – it is also evident that his work, while careful and accurate, is not really advancing anything new. He has provided a close reading of Barth that is compelling to the knowledgeable reader, and this is indeed important. However, his points are simple, easily made, and became redundant over the course of the work. Wood’s hope is that his modest project might serve as an aid for other scholars’ constructive work. This seems likely. Of course, it is always better to read Barth for one’s self, but Wood’s book is neatly organized and summarizes key points in Barth’s rather extensive writing on the subject of scriptural interpretation. Moreover, if we are to take Barth at his word – as Wood suggests we do – the key is to focus not on Barth’s hermeneutics but to pay attention to his exegesis, and to do exegesis ourselves. This, in the end, is what most needs to be understood about Barth’s theology of interpretation.
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.