Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of IsaiahWritten by Mark S. Gignilliat
In the tradition of Brevard Childs’s The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, this book makes an important contribution both to the history of the interpretation of Isaiah as well as to the study of Barth and his theological exegetical approach. Despite increased attention to Barth, his OT exegesis has been largely overlooked. Otto Bächli broke ground in 1987 with Das Alte Testament in der Kirchlichen Dogmatik von Karl Barth. Now Mark Gignilliat draws English-speakers into the discussion.
Gignilliat begins with a chapter on “Barth and the Renaissance of Old Testament Theology in the Early 20thCentury.” After engaging anecdotes from Brevard Childs’s student days with Barth in Basel and a brief survey of contemporary scholarship on Barth’s exegesis, Gignilliat describes the revival of OT theology in Germany between 1920 and 1950. A review of the correspondence between Barth and Walter Baumgartner between 1940 and 1955 highlights salient points of disagreement between one purely historical-critical exegete and a theological exegete. During an age when the dominant approach was “methodologically atheistic” (Brian Daley’s expression) and focused almost exclusively on the religious history of the people of Israel, Barth (along with his friend Wilhelm Vischer) stood against the historicist tide and affirmed the necessity to “read both testaments as a witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ” (23).
In the second chapter, “Die Zeit der Erwartung,” Gignilliat explores Barth’s view of the OT as a time of expectation. The ghost of Marcion haunted the German church. Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and even Kittel questioned the validity of the OT for the Christian church. Against the regnant Religionsgeschichteapproach with its modernistic Weltanschauung and epistemological starting point, Barth argues that the object of study determines the approach one takes to the subject. “God’s revelation in Jesus Christ witnessed to in Holy Scripture provides the epistemic possibility for recognition of the unique and revelatory events of the years 1–30 and not vice versa” (34). The dominant approach that made the Judaism of the day the controlling factor for OT exegesis was missing the connection of both testaments to Jesus Christ, and robbing the church of the voice of figuration, typification, and anticipation that it had always heard in the OT.
In the third and fourth chapters Gignilliat turns to Barth’s theological exegesis of Isaiah itself, working through the sections of the Kirchlichen Dogmatik that most substantively engage with Isaiah. And in a concluding chapter, Gignilliat examines the “Theological Exegetical Implications of Barth’s Isaianic Exegesis.” He concedes that Barth’s Christian reading of the OT does not provide us so much with a transferable method as an example of sound exegetical instincts and of faithful wrestling with the verbal sense as a theological witness to God’s triune revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.
A strength and limitation of the monograph is the striking way in which it sets up Childs as a conversation partner with Barth, especially regarding the christological witness of the OT. Gignilliat wants to show how “Childs’s formulations provide a helpful heuristic in evaluating what Barth does rather intuitively” (p. x). The conclusion details Childs’s canonical approach as a framework for understanding what Barth does in his multi-leveled reading of Isaiah. But Childs (and his followers such as Seitz) provides the conceptualization and even the terminology for evaluating Barth throughout. I came away wondering what a non-Childean view of Barth’s hermeneutic would look like.
Gignilliat admits Barth’s limitations when it comes to linguistic, historical, and literary analysis. Some of Barth’s readings are admittedly thin, and the treatment of the whole is not programmatically selective. Nevertheless, Gignilliat considers Barth to have pulled off a virtuoso performance. By the end I was not surprised to read in the introduction, “The lion’s share of what I have learned about theological exegesis is indebted to the theological trajectory set by Barth and Childs” (p. x). The book comes as the commendation of a warm-hearted disciple. It does not seriously question Barth’s view of Scripture, for example, nor how this might hinder his exegesis. For a more critical analysis I might recommend the essays in Gibson and Strange’s 2008 collection, Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques.
Gignilliat certainly succeeds in demonstrating that in Barth there is “a reading of Isaiah that understands the relationship between its literal sense and figural witness as organically related and on a sliding scale of mutual reciprocity” (138). With a deft grasp of the state of Isaiah scholarship today (and a solid bibliography), Gignilliat unfolds Barth’s approaches to a long series of passages. Some of these give deeply satisfying insight, but space prohibits me from sharing even the choicest.
I am grateful for the reminder of how brave Barth was in the Germany of his day for his views on the OT and of how concerned he was for the impact of a twisted theological education on the preaching of the churches. I appreciated being let in on the interesting conversations of great minds (not only from Barth but also from many voices in the history of interpretation) inviting us today to reconsider and clarify our own approaches to exegesis. What does a faithful Christian reading of the OT look like? “There is no Christological exegesis of the Old Testament of the bruta facta stripe.… Theological exegesis is located in a web of theological confessions that are all mutually informing one another” (p. 22). And, “The recognition of the OT as an expecting voice follows one’s confession of Jesus Christ as God’s revelatory Word and can only be confirmed by the sole authoritative witness to him, Holy Scripture” (p. 40). Indeed, we are seeking what we have already found.
Other Articles in this Issue
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Among the many biblical passages that provoke controversial questions about Christian non-violence and cooperation with the sword-bearing state, perhaps none presses the issue as sharply as Matt 5:38–42...