Excessive Verbiage, Dogmatic Exegesis, and Obedience to Holy Scripture

Yesterday after posting my response to Richard Muller’s article “What I Haven’t Learned from Karl Barth” that appeared this week on the Heidelblog, I was delighted to find two wonderful companion pieces that substantially corroborate that which I intended to say. The first is an excellent blog post written by my friend Bobby Grow, and I highly recommend it. The second comes from the editors’ preface to Volume I/2 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. As I have set about reading through Barth’s CD for the second time, it just so happens that the section that I encountered as finished I/1 and started into I/2 struck me as providing a powerful rejoinder to the critical remarks that Muller directs toward Barth. As should be remembered, Muller complains of Barth’s “excessive verbiage”, his “ideas that refuse to achieve closure”, and his “arbitrary and dogmatic karl-barth-by-ross-melanson-20091exegesis” that ostensibly distorts the meaning of Scripture through an unwarranted principial Christocentrism. Against these criticisms, here is what the editors of the English translation of the Church Dogmatics have to say about Barth’s literary and theological approach:

The translation of Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik is far from being an easy task, not only because of the difficulty of his German style, but particularly because of the sustained scientific intention of his dogmatic procedure. By directing relentless questions to the subject of inquiry Barth seeks to let the truth declare itself clearly and positively, and then he seeks to express the truth in its own wholeness without breaking it up into parts and thus dissolving its essential nature by unreal distinctions. It is this disciplined purpose which governs his style throughout and greatly lengthens the exposition. At every point he probes ruthlessly into the subject from all angles to make it declare itself, and then in long balanced sentences he sets the truth forth surrounded with careful clarifications and exact delimitations in subordinate clauses, and yet in such a way that by means of these Abgrenzungen, as he calls them, the whole truth is made to appear in its own manifoldness and in its native force.

This makes it very difficult for the reader until he realises that even the style is subordinated to the scientific intention of the dogmatic procedure. But once he gets used to it and follows the method of exposition, in which Barth goes round and round the same point with a different series of questions, he discovers that, though he does not grasp it at first, the spiral method of procedure brings him face to face with different aspects of it until the truth comes home to him with great force and clarity. On the other hand, this makes it very difficult for the translator who wishes to turn the text into good English. To break up the long and carefully balanced sentences into short clear-cut statements would often destroy the scientific intention and dissolve the theological content into scholastic distinctiones, the very thing which Barth seeks to avoid. The English translation, therefore, while working with shorter sentences, must be as faithful as possible to the style of Barth in so far as that is dictated by his deliberate procedure…

The publication of this half-volume completes the English version of Barth’s Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics. In these two half-volumes, which are the foundation for all that follows, Barth has sought to work out in thoroughgoing fashion a critical and truly scientific understanding of the relation between faith and reason. He insists that reason is unconditionally bound to its object and determined by it, and that the nature of the object must prescribe the specific mode of its activity. Faith is this reason directed to the knowledge of God, and it involves a way of knowing that answers to the nature of the unique and incomparable object—the living God; that refuses to prescribe arbitrarily to the object how it is to be known; and that humbly tries to be obedient to the divine revelation in Jesus Christ alone as given to us in the Holy Scriptures. Dogmatic theology is thus understood as the discipline which we must undertake within the bounds of the Church where the Word of God is heard in the preaching of the Gospel, where we are face to face with the mystery of Christ as true God and true Man, and where we are given, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to participate in Him, in His life, death and resurrection. Thus the great heart of Barth’s theology is the doctrine of Jesus Christ. In theology as in faith we give ourselves to the obedience of Christ, and let all our thinking be taken captive by Him. That is why the doctrine of the person and work of Christ forms the centre and core of all Christian theology and determines all our thinking in the Christian Church.

Although Barth seeks to expound this in all the wealth of our modern inheritance in language and thought, he does so by carrying on a discussion with the whole history of Christian theology, and above all by grounding his exposition on the exhaustive exegesis of the Holy Scriptures through which we hear the Word of God speaking to us in the Church. Thus instead of binding theology to the philosophy of one age, like an Aquinas or a Schleiermacher, Barth has sought to give theology such an expression in our thought that the living Truth becomes the master of our thinking, and not thinking the master of the Truth.[1]

I find this both helpful and accurate in describing the way in which Barth engaged in his dogmatic endeavours. What Muller pejoratively labels “excessive verbiage” is actually the result of Barth’s desire to present “the whole truth…its own manifoldness and in its native force”. What Muller objects to as “ideas that refuse to achieve closure” is actually the evidence of Barth’s refusal to “destroy the scientific intention and dissolve the theological content” of the full spectrum of the biblical witness “into scholastic distinctiones“. What Muller decries as “arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis” is actually the fruit of Barth’s efforts to not “prescribe arbitrarily to the object how it is to be known” but rather “to be obedient to the divine revelation in Jesus Christ alone as given to us in the Holy Scriptures”.

Thus, if it takes Barth’s “excessive verbiage” to display in human language the unspeakable glory and inexhaustible wealth of the truth of divine self-revelation, if it requires “ideas that refuse to achieve closure” in order to avoid the danger of artificially limiting that revelation to what can be contained in logical formulae or syllogisms, if it becomes necessary to engage in what some consider “arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis” in order to avoid imposing a truly arbitrary schema in biblical interpretation by being faithfully and humbly obedient to the actual form that divine revelation has assumed in the person and work of Christ as attested in Holy Scripture, then it seems to me that choice between the two options is clear. I will throw in my lot with Barth over Muller and the Protestant scholastics any day.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics I/2: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.vii-ix.


2 thoughts on “Excessive Verbiage, Dogmatic Exegesis, and Obedience to Holy Scripture

  1. Matt B 4 September 2016 / 06:26

    This is a very good and necessary explanation of Barth’s verbage usage, open ended and unlimiting exegetical work amd is in direct contrast to what most jump to with an assumptive posture towards the reasoning behind the means Barth used and the ends Barth sought to achieve with his used means. Very good work brother!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 4 September 2016 / 18:45

      Thanks Matt! I appreciate your kind and encouraging words.


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