Karl Barth on the Old Testament


I am reading through what is so far an extremely interesting book in the Ashgate “Barth Studies” Series entitled, Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah (by Mark S. Gignilliat). (I will be reviewing it for International Journal of Systematic Theology.) I’m only just beginning it, but already Gignilliat alerted me to this wonderful little passage in vol I.2 of the Barth’s Church Dogmatics where Barth speaks formally about his view of the importance of the Old Testament as part of the Christian canon: 

Neither in the New Testament nor in the documents of the 2nd-century post-apostolic period do we find the slightest trace of anyone seriously and responsibly trying to replace the Holy Scriptures of Israel by other traditions of other nations, all those nations within which the first Churches sprang up, or to proclaim those traditions as prophecies of Christ and therefore as a more suitable introduction to the New Testament Bible. Yet this would have meant a great easing of the missionary task, and apologetics often tended in this direction, although hardly ever with reference to the problem of the Canon. Even Marcion never plunged in this direction, although he was near enough to it. We cannot plunge in this direction, we cannot even try to do what Marcion and after him the Socinians and Schleiermacher and Ritschl and Harnack tried to do, without substituting another foundation for the foundation on which the Christian Church is built. The Old Testament is not an introduction to the real New Testament Bible, which we can dispense with or replace. We cannot eliminate the Old Testament or substitute for it the records of the early religious history of other peoples, as R. Wilhelm has suggested in the case of China, B. Gutmann in some sense in that of Africa, and many recent fools in the case of Germany. If we do, we are not merely opposing a questionable accessory, but the very institution and existence of the Christian Church. We are founding a new Church, which is not a Christian Church. . . . Whether we like it or not, the Christ of the New Testament is the Christ of the Old Testament, the Christ of Israel. The man who will not accept this merely shows that in fact he has already substituted another Christ for the Christ of the New Testament. It was not to dissolve the Law and the prophets but to fulfil them that the real Christ of the New Testament came (Mt. 5:17; cf. Jn. 10:35).

–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2,  488. (underlines my emphasis!)
As Gignilliat puts it, “For Karl Barth, the Old Testament is more than a red carpet rolled out to introduce the New Testament, that is, a corpus easily dispensed with once the New Testament has arrived.” (25)
At a personal level, I more and more lament just how woefully inadequate I am in reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In this regard, I’m tempted to do a graduate degree in OT under the supervision of my friend and colleague Eric Ortlund  in whom I see an example of someone who knows the historical-critical world of Old Testament studies well, but who preaches from OT books (like Ecclesiastes!) in ways I’ve rarely heard in the evangelical world. (In fact, go over to Eric’s blog and pressure him to post his notes from his last seminary sermon delivered on Ecclesiastes…)
Disclaimer: At this point it is only a temptation for me to do another degree…I’m sure Maureen would have some things to say that! 🙂

4 thoughts on “Karl Barth on the Old Testament

  1. David, I just want you to know that if you applied for the program, I wouldn’t accept you! And then I’m make you do my laundry for a year. And I’d haze you every day in class!

    Oh, and I’d like to take a degree under you as well, since I am so woefully inadequate in theology. So right back achya!

  2. Dustin

    Hah! I’m reading that book right now too. The first couple of chapters were really good. So far I’ve been somewhat disappointed by his treatment of Barth’s actual use of Isaiah. My initial concern…. and that is all I have… is that that the CD is not a commentary and so one must be very careful not to infer that “Barth isn’t interested in something” (which the author says repeatedly) simply because he doesn’t talk about it in his dogmatics. He is only uninterested in certain questions and aspects of the text IN THIS SPECIFIC CONTEXT and FOR THIS SPECIFIC PURPOSE. I’ll have to see if it gets better or if he nuances things a bit more. I should also say that the author does appear to be aware of these issues, at least from what he says in the preface and introduction.

    The discussion of Barth’s relationship to the OT scholarship of his day was highly entertaining! I love the part where Barth turns to his neighbour at a von Rad lecture and says, “Ich habe ihn gar nicht verstanden!” Hilarious!

  3. I loved that quotation as well, Dustin. I doubt that Barth was saying, “I haven’t the foggiest clue as to what von Rad is saying” as much as he was saying, “I haven’t the foggiest idea of why von Rad would say such a thing!”

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