Misreading Barth in Pauline Scholarship
Readings of Paul influenced by the work of Karl Barth – or, at least, supposedly Barthian readings of Paul – have recently been taken up by a number of interpreters. One recurring characteristic of such self-proclaimed Barthian readings is to construe Paul’s gospel as radically, purely, and thoroughgoingly objective: completely undetermined, unaffected, and untouched by human processes or actions. In this interpretation, the objective character of the gospel hangs on the exclusion of subjective realities touching or coming near this event. My suspicion is that those Pauline scholars who wave this kind of radically objectivist Barthian flag haven’t actually read the Dogmatics very closely, or maybe they attempted to read it in a vacuum without recourse to any of the indispensable secondary literature on Barth. Instead of deriving from a close reading of Barth’s texts, it is possible that this kind of so-called ‘Barthian’ reading of Paul might reflect an overreaction to yet another misreading of Bultmann. Barth is too often hailed as the objectivist hero who comes in to defeat Bultmann, his subjective nemesis who reduces the gospel to mere renewed self-understanding. It is overdue to point out that, in line with Calvin, what Bultmann actually means by Selbstverständnis includes both knowledge of self and knowledge of God, though this is misunderstood by Barth himself and radically ignored by the the near entirety of Anglophone Pauline scholarship.1 Regardless, the point here is that not only did Bultmann not reduce the gospel to pure subjective reality, but also Barth did not construe the Christ-event event as a purely object event which happens entirely outside of human experience. Barth, in fact, has no theory of ‘appropriation’ of the Christ-event and rejects this theological speech as inept. Instead, because the Christ-event is a theanthropological event, the event itself includes its own effects: the subjective reality of the gospel is included within and effected by the objective.
I have a sense that this last point is overlooked by Pauline scholars purportedly pulling from Barth. That being the case, Pauline scholars need to get a heavy dose of Barth through the more sophisticated and recent secondary literature on the topic. Below are my five recommendations. The first two give you a helpful overview of various issues in Barth. The last three (in contrast to the reception of Barth in Pauline scholars) repeatedly insist on the theanthropological shape of the Christ-event in Barth’s work.
- George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of his Theology (Oxford: OUP, 1993).
- Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
- John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology; Human Action in Barth’s Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
- John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
- Gerald McKenny, The Analogy of Grace: Karl Barth’s Moral Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Barth interprets ‘Selbst’ in Bultmann’s term Selbstverständnis as the exclusive object of verstehen, thus accusing him of isolating the self as the sole object of soteriological knowledge (Rudolf Bultmann: ein Versuch, ihn zu verstehen (Theologische Studeien 34; Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1952), 6). But Bultmann includes both knowledge of God and self in the event of self-understanding: Selbstverständnis is ‘an understanding…that is, as the self-understanding [Selbstverständlichkeit], in which one understands the Revealer and oneself (‘Die Eschatologie des Johannes-Evangeliums’, in Glauben und Verstehen (4 vols; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1993] 1:134–52 (152, emphasis mine)). The echo of Calvin’s double-knowledge here is hard to ignore. On this issue see also Eberhard Jüngel, ‘Glauben und Verstehen: Zum Theologiebegriff Rudolf Bultmanns’, in Wertlose Wahrheit: Zur Identität und Relevanz des christlichen Glaubens—Theologische Erörterungen III (Munich: Kaiser, 1990), 16–77, esp. 68.