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The Early Development of the Hermeneutic of Karl Barth… (1985): More Doctoral Dissertations Should Be Published

David Paul Henry, The Early Development of the Hermeneutic of Karl Barth As Evidenced by His Appropriation of Romans 5:12-21 (National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion Dissertation Series, 1985)

[originally posted 7Nov2001]

A plain brown and tan cover.

The dull cover belies the fascinating contents.
photo credit:

Karl Barth is something of an enigma: a self-styled Lutheran “simple country preacher” before and during World War I who took up the task of theological hermeneutics (at its most simplistic level, hermeneutics is simply the interpretation of text) as a means to the end of finding a more effective way to get the Christian message across to his parishioners. He ended up as, basically, the voice of Pauline thought across the Christian religion by the time of his death in 1968. David Paul Henry, in his doctoral dissertation, looks at the differences between the first two editions of Barth’s book Der Romerbrief, published in 1917 and 1920, in an effort to trace the development of Barth’s interpretive skills and methods during this period—in which, it can be inferred, Barth’s theological underpinnings did more changing than they did at any other time during his life. Henry also includes an epilogue pertaining to Barth’s 1959 release Christ and Adam, which is in many ways a second revision of the original Der Romerbrief.

Barth as a subject is an endlessly fascinating person. His writings, on the other hand, can be something of a trial for the casual reader (I’ve heard they’re actually worse in the original German). Thus, when Henry starts his book with a forty-page excerpt of the first edition of Der Romerbrief (Henry’s own
translation of the work—which, in his own words, “attempts to render Barth’s phrases in literal English equivalents.” Oh, the pain and suffering.), the reader can get the feeling of being quite overwhelmed, even if he has been immersed in the writings of Barth before. Henry’s translation does, however, achieve his stated goal of allowing the forcefulness of Barth’s personality and conviction to come through; Barth, compared to most of today’s well-known American evangelists, comes off as the Mephistopheles to a legion of wan, undernourished Fausts.

The remaining hundred-fifty-odd pages of the book are Henry’s own writing, which is quite a bit more readable than Barth, and the book picks up speed. Henry first devotes two separate chapters to the two steps Barth took in his exegetical writing– the historical interpretation of the text first, and then the (as J. T. Beck put it) “pneumatic exegesis,” best described in simplistic terms as the spiritual interpretation of the text. The fourth and last chapter compares the differences in the second edition—not so much differences in text as differences in Barth’s thinking that led him to rewrite the manuscript (the textual differences are, for the most part, differing translations of the original Greek which Biblical scholars have been arguing over for centuries, are still arguing, and will likely never stop arguing).

If you’re a fan of understanding methods of textual interpretation, you don’t need me to tell you it’s fascinating stuff. Trying to get at the thought processes of a writer makes for great history. Henry had an inroad that most authors don’t, in that Barth left two distinct editions of one work in his corpus, and so Henry’s book is more capable than most of tracing those thoughts. As this is his intention, he also stays away (until the last few paragraphs of chapter four) of value judgments of the work itself, a refreshing change from most exegetical histories.

This isn’t light reading, and those completing the book are likely to crack a smile at the irony of Henry’s last sentence in Chapter Four: “The task of theological hermeneutics, as Karl Barth recognized, is not simple.” Indeed. But that doesn’t make Henry’s work any less worth reading. I would suggest, however, that novices to the intriguing world of exegesis (either of original texts or exegetic texts such as Barth’s) find a slightly less difficult subject to address first, e.g. Stanley Fish’s exegesis of Milton, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. If you find it to your liking, Henry should be right up your alley. (Tackling Henry before tackling Barth is much advised.) *** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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