From my reading of Church Dogmatics so far, it is clear to me that Karl Barth believed that the Word of God is found in Scripture. This past week I came across Barth’s advice on how to study and interpret Scripture. Since the Swiss theologian is writing primarily for the benefit of pastors with seminary educations,he uses two terms that may not be familiar to all of my readers: hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is the field of study concerned with the philosophy and science of interpretation. It is concerned with how we interpret the Bible. The term exegesis refers to the specific process of drawing the meaning out of a biblical text.
Barth writes that the basic principle of all hermeneutics is that each passage of the Bible must be understood and explained in light of its parallels in Scripture, obscure passages by clear ones. He goes on to say that there are three phases of the process of scriptural interpretation: observation, explanation, and application.
The first step in the process is the act of observation and the professor who served for eleven years as a Swiss pastor says that the most important instrument to use in observation is what he calls literary-historical investigation. This involves using the methods of source criticism, lexicography, grammar, syntax and appreciation of style. Since Barth wrote primarily for pastors, he assumes that they will have some familiarity with the biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek, and that they will have been exposed to technical issues such as determining the most likely text when multiple ancient manuscripts are not in full agreement. But I believe that serious students of the Bible who have not had a seminary education and who don’t know Hebrew or Greek, can still profit from carefully observing a biblical text and asking, “What does it say?”
Barth’s second step in biblical exegesis is what he calls “the act of reflection on what Scripture declares to us.” I would call this step explanation. It answers the question, “What does it mean?” Here Barth cautions that we must be aware of our philosophical point of view that will influence how we derive meaning from Scripture. None of us can avoid bringing our own perspectives and prejudices to the task of understanding a Scripture text. Barth writes, “There has never yet been an expositor who has allowed only Scripture alone to speak” (page 728 of volume 1.2).
When slave owners in the South prior to the Civil War read their Bible, they found plenty of evidence to support the institution of slavery. But their slaves who were permitted to learn to read, discovered many Bible texts that supported their aspirations for freedom. In our current debates about homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular, I’ve often heard Christians boldly assert that homosexuality (or at least homoerotic behavior) is against the will of God. However I’ve also read many books by thoughtful Christians who happen to be gay, who, on the basis of intensive study of Scripture conclude that God is not opposed to same-sex love. What you bring to the Bible will often determine what you get out of it. (Based on my own study of the Bible on the issue of homosexuality, I have been compelled to change my own thinking and now agree with those who find no prohibition to same-sex love and marriage. Depending on the interest of my readers, I may write more about this in the future.)
Karl Barth is not a relativist who thinks that Scripture can mean whatever one wants to make it say, but he warns us to be aware of the perspectives and prejudices we all bring to the task of understanding God’s Word.
For many years I have had the privilege of teaching the Bible to small groups of adults. One thing I have noticed is that people want to interpret what the Bible means before first asking what it says. Barth reminds us that observation must precede explanation.
Barth’s third step in biblical exegesis is what he calls “appropriation” – what I would call application. Bible study should never be simply an academic exercise. It should lead to speaking and obeying the Word of God we find in Scripture.
In Karl Barth’s own life, his diligent study of the Bible led him to resist and denounce Hitler’s effort to make the German Church into an exclusive Aryan club with myths and rituals drawn from German culture. While the majority of German Christians went along with Hitler’s efforts to make the church in Germany subordinate to the state, Barth resisted this effort and was exiled from Germany prior to World War II.
The goal of Bible study is finally obedience to the Word of God in our current life circumstances. I hope this brief review of the process of Bible study will help you become a more informed and obedient follower of the Word of God.