Wednesday, March 07, 2007

In a few of my courses, especially one on the historical-critical method, I've been struggle with the issue of how one is to read the Bible. Our readings, tracing the history of historical criticism, have presented us with a variety of perspectives on the value of emphasizing the fact that the Bible is a historical document.

On the one hand are writers like Spinoza. With no real idea of inspiration, he sees the Scriptures as just a bit of historical writing, although one which contains some elements of real truth. He trims away outdated concepts, searching out the lasting wisdom. For example, Spinoza upholds the central command that we are to "love God and your neighbor", but sees narratives involving miracles as a result of superstition and simplistic minds.

On the other hand, we have the venerable Danish Saint: Kierkegaard. He describes the proper approach to the biblical text as follows:

Think of a lover who has now received a letter from his beloved -- as precious as this letter is to the lover, just so precious to thee, I assume, is God's Word; in the way the lover reads this letter, just so, I assume, dost thou read God's Word and conceive that God's Word ought to be read.

For Kierkegaard, critical reading is not really reading the biblical text. If you read God's Word, it must be read as if God is directly speaking to you alone by means of the text. Sure, the historical text must be translated into words we can understand, but such translation is not really reading God's Word. Kierkegaard goes as far as to argue that critical interpretation can only distance one from God's call as encountered in the Scriptures.

Karl Barth is heavily influenced by Kierkegaard in his proposed approach to reading the Bible. However, he is less stringent in his critique of (historical-)critical readings. He writes:

The demand for a 'historical' understanding of the Bible necessarily means, in content, that we have to take it for what it undoubtedly is and is meant to be: the human speech uttered by specific men at specific times in a specific situation, in a specific language with a specific intention.

This is a helpful starting point. There is no sense in denying the truth that the Bible is a historical document and thus can be studied like a historical document. However, Barth does not stop there. On the contrary, he holds that the historical-critical method "assuredly achieves no more than a point of departure for genuine exegesis," which operates with the following maxim: "The Word ought to be exposed in the words." That is to say, the eternal Word of God is to be encountered in its temporal expression in the Bible.

I think I'm with Barth on this one.


Dave Beldman said...

Good post, Piet.
I think one of the most fundamental issues in biblical studies (for those who are people of faith) is how to balance/hold in tension the fact that the Bible is at the same time a product of humans and a product of God.
Last year I did a paper on Barth's view of the Bible and while I agree with you that his view provides an interesting way forward, I don't think his view of scripture is without fault. I would have to double-check this but I'm pretty sure he would say that the Bible is not the Word of God but it contains the Word of God (or has the capacity to become the Word of God). This allowed him to affirm all the methods of historical criticism without compromising his faith in God's Word. Because of his mediating position he was criticized by both liberals and conservatives.
Interstingly, his own exegesis and interpretation of the biblical texts (which he does a lot of in his work) is not excessively historical but is refreshingly theological and quite meaningful.

PietHarsevoort said...

I should admit here that I've read very little of Barth (the prefaces to his commentary on Romans and a brief selection from Church Dogmatics) and thus do not have a very informed opinion on his hermeneutics. However, it seems that due to his high view of the significance of Inspiration the idea that "the Bible is not the Word of God but it contains the Word of God (or has the capacity to become the Word of God)", which for another scholar could easily lead to huge problems, does not derail Barth's interpretation.

When he writes that "The Word ought to be exposed in the words" he seems to be drawing directly on Kierkegaard with his distinction between reading and reading. If you are not reading the Bible with an eye to what God is saying directly to you, you are not reading God's Word.

Anonymous said...

In fact, the problem with both seems to be an existential starting point--what the Bible is for me, how I read it, what it contains for me. Rather, we should begin with the assertion that as God's self-revelation, God's divine word, God has said things that we need to know and understand in order to know and understand God.

As far as I can remember, Barth ties in the authority of the Bible (it being God's word) with Christ, the Divine Word, and only through this Word does the word become God's word. It has to do with his view of God as being unapproachable by us, except through Christ, in a kind of Kantian phenomena-noumena way. In fact, earlier Barth said that God was unapproachable at all, but he changed this view over time.

I would argue that it is best to go with the Belgic Confession on this one, and start with the fact of God, and then see the Bible as God making himself known to us, accomodating himself to our fallen finiteness.