Barth, Calvin, and Reformed Exegesis – an Excerpt from Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics

The following is an excerpt from Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, by Craig Bartholomew.

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The truth is that Church Dogmatics and Barth’s other works are an exegetical resource that has been sadly neglected by biblical scholars. But what of the claim that Barth is an enemy of theological orthodoxy? Might this not support keeping him at arm’s length? There is certainly room for theological critique of Barth, but what must be understood is Barth’s theologically conservative reaction to the liberalism of his day, and his recovery of the Bible as Scripture, involving at its core a reappropriation of the Reformed tradition and of Calvin in particular.

Barth’s recovery of the Reformed tradition was so damaging to liberalism because he had been one of them. However, as a young pastor he found that liberalism was bankrupt in the aftermath of World War I when it came to addressing his congregation in the European context.

….In his lectures on Calvin, Barth recognizes the unique contribution of Calvin as an expositor of Scripture to the Reformation: “Scripture did not play quite the same part in Reformed Protestantism as in Lutheranism. Its dignity here was one of principle as it never was in Lutheranism, no matter how highly the latter regarded it.”

Cover ArtThe big issue for Reformed Protestantism was “how to give God, the true God, the glory, how to do it here and now,” and against the backdrop of medieval Catholicism, its answer was to look to the Bible as the final norm in faith and life….

Barth identifies three characteristics of Calvin’s exegesis that he finds exemplary. First, there is the extraordinary objectivity of his exegesis. At times Calvin does engage in eisegesis—”if we read nothing into the Bible, we will also read nothing out of it”!—but his exegesis is always characterized by a concern to stay close to the text and to do justice to what is actually there.

The example Barth gives of Calvin’s eisegesis is that Calvin assumes the unity of the message of the Bible when he reads it: though Scripture is polyphonic, the diverse voices are all seeking to say the same thing.

Second, there is the uniformity of Calvin’s exegesis. By this, Barth refers to Calvin’s concern to attend to individual books in their literary totality and to the whole of Scripture: “If in principle it is seen to be right to listen to the Bible, then we should listen to the whole Bible.”

In his commentary work, for example, he is always concerned to expound the whole of a book and not just the parts that have been influential. Calvin’s premise of the verbal inspiration of the Bible did not prevent him from critically examining the trustworthiness of the Bible, but it did give “him a consistent zeal to track down the content of the whole Bible, a zeal incidentally that would also stand historical investigation of the Bible in good stead.”

The third characteristic of Calvin’s exegesis is its relevance. By relevance, Barth is not thinking of application to the cultural and historical context, but the sense that this is God’s Word addressing us. Calvin is at pains to attend to the particularity of texts, but at the same time he is busy with a living dialogue across the centuries. Barth gives the example that when Calvin expounds Paul, “We believe Calvin the more readily because he is not deliberately trying to make us believe but simply setting out what he finds in Paul, yet not, of course, without being able or even trying to hide the fact that he himself believes it. This quiet kinship between the apostle and the exegete speaks for itself.”

©2015 by Craig G. Bartholomew. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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