Hans Frei and Karl Barth: Different Ways of Reading Scripture

Written by David E. Demson Reviewed By John Goldingay

For me, there are two Hans Freis and two Karl Barths. There is the Frei of The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative and the Barth of the prefaces to The Epistle to the Romans and, for that matter, the Church Dogmatics. They are intelligible and extraordinarily illuminating on the task of biblical interpretation. But there is also the Frei of The Identity of Jesus Christ and the Barth of the body of the Romans commentary. I have found them unintelligible so I haven’t known whether or not they are illuminating.

This narrowly focused study of The Identity of Jesus Christ and aspects of the Dogmatics is elegant. This elegance is in the service of sifting some important underlying issues. Yet, for one who is a (British) biblical scholar rather than an (American) systematician, it is hard going. This very fact, however, illustrates the complexity of interdisciplinary work in hermeneutics. Consider, for example, the contrast between myth and gospel. I have always thought of that as implying a contrast between liberal and conservative interpretation. I have then been able to take a stance in relation to myth like that attributed to the religious man in Luke 18 and thank God that I do not see the gospel as myth, as other people do. But for Demson/Frei, a mythological reading is one in which ‘one reads the gospel story of salvation and comes to a deeper understanding of the self, and this deeper understanding is salvation’ whereas the Gospels themselves are ‘identity descriptions’ of ‘a specific … unsubstitutable person’.

The irony is that the standard fare of much of our devotion, especially in the evangelical-charismatic circles with which some identify, is something uncomfortably like Demson/Frei’s Gnostic reading. It studies the gospels and finds people like ourselves—not just in the disciples, but in Jesus—and in finding ourselves, thinks that we find salvation.

But Demson’s focus is on the way in which the unsubstitutable Jesus comes to be ours. Here his point is that Frei provides no link between him and us except the literary form of the Gospel narratives. It is in connection with this that Frei made his great contribution to the study of biblical interpretation in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, reminding us that living by Scripture means letting ourselves be embraced by this narrative and living in it as the real world, rather than conforming the biblical narrative to what we think is reality.

In contrast, in Barth the link between the Gospels and us is not merely a matter of narrative but of witness. Barth emphasises Jesus’ gathering, upholding, and sending of the apostles. Integral to the story of Jesus’ coming to save us is the story of Jesus’ forming a people to witness to that saving. So we discover the presence of Jesus Christ not merely by means of Word—Scripture and expository preaching—and sacraments (Frei) but by means of our inclusion in the apostolate (Barth).

Does this description help? Well, as I have indicated, I found the book tough going. Here is a sentence: ‘For Barth, the descriptive structure of the gospel story is an exponent of the gathering, upholding, and sending of the apostles; therefore, the gospel story is to be read as a function of this gathering, upholding, and sending’. Professor Demson has learned from Barth how to do theology, but from Frei how to write it. Perhaps this limits the usefulness of this contribution, within the constituency of those interested in Scripture and hermeneutics.

John Goldingay

Fuller Theological Seminary