Theology is exegesis: John Webster on what we can learn from Barth and Bonhoeffer

John Webster’s essay, “Reading the Bible: The Example of Barth and Bonhoeffer” (pages 87–110 in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics [Edinburgh; New York: T&T Clark, 2001]) is, in large part, the inspiration for my doctoral dissertation.

I’d like to share the three reflections/lessons Webster draws from the biblical work of Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Wrapping up his essay, Webster claims that

Neither Bonhoeffer nor Barth were wissenschaftlich theologians; both were practical or pastoral theologians of the church of Jesus Christ. . . . Both, in short, were members of the guild, so despised by Kant and most of his heirs, of biblical theologians. Pondering their work may give us cause to reflect on three matters (108–109).

Here are the first two “matters.”

  1. “[H]ermeneutical and methodological questions are at best of secondary importance in the interpretation of Scripture. The real business is elsewhere, and it is spiritual, and therefore dogmatic” (109).
  2. “[I]t is therefore true that a fittingly Christian hermeneutics ‘requires the formation and transformation of the character appropriate to Christian disciples’. But Bonhoeffer and Barth counsel real caution here. . . . However little it may apply to Bonhoeffer, Barth’s worry about any ‘cultivation’ of habits of reading—that it may substitute routine for repentance—ought not to go unheeded” (109–110).

I’ll quote the third matter/lesson at length, because it is so good!

Third: the chief task of Christian theology is exegesis. The reason for that is devastatingly simple: ‘Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God.’ Theology is exegesis because its matter is Jesus Christ as he communicates himself through Holy Scripture. And so attention to Holy Scripture is not only a necessary but also—in a real sense—a sufficient condition for theology, because Scripture itself is not only necessary but also sufficient.

Webster continues with a brilliant way of charting the recent history of theology vis-a-vis the Bible:

One way of writing the history of modern theology would be to trace the sad fate of Scripture’s sufficiency and its reduction to merely necessary status. The counter to this is: exegesis, exegesis and exegesis. The task of exegesis is far too important to be devolved upon biblical technicians. But if modern theology demonstrates a failure on this score, it does not lie primarily on the part of the guild of biblical scholars, but on the part of dogmatic theologians, who have all too often abdicated responsibility for exegesis, and rested content with genres and modes of argument which have encouraged the conceptual takeover of the biblical gospel. Christian theology is properly evangelical, because it is generated by the gospel. But part of securing that evangelical character will be recovering a rhetoric for theology which simply lets Scripture be. Work on that task—which, in their different ways, Barth and Bonhoeffer also deemed theology’s central preoccupation—is scarcely begun.

So, theologians, let’s get to work on “recovering a rhetoric for theology which simply lets Scripture be”!

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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