with Paul Tillich on Reading Scripture and Culture
By Derek Maris
In studying Karl Barth, one is often daunted by the sheer volume of his writings. Neophytes of Barth’s thought will often seek out primers on his theology, even introductions to specific topics, viewing the actual Church Dogmatics as an unreasonable burden. Beneath this apparent humility hides a less noble reason for avoiding the CD – there is so much to read and understand that laziness or bitterness can short-circuit the fruits of extensive engagement.
While any student of theology can sympathize, one must remember that for Barth there were no short cuts in reading. As the numerous pages of the CD “fine print” notes demonstrate, Barth was a voracious reader of scripture, church history, and culture. His theology was born out of his constant engagement of numerous types of texts; if nothing else, Barth was well-read. In this essay we will seek to learn from this prodigious writer and reader how to read all types of texts well, both actual biblical texts and metaphorical cultural texts, the innumerable varieties of attitudes, beliefs, and activities that make up cultural narratives. Barth’s contemporary Paul Tillich will serve as a conversation partner in this endeavor.
Initially one must concede that this undertaking is undeniably provisional. Barth’s hermeneutical methods, as he himself admitted to Bultmann, resemble a “wild and crooked tree,” lacking the well defined parameters of his counterpart (in Saye’s “The Wild and Crooked Tree,” Modern Theology (1996), 435). Barth was so busy “trying to say something specific” that he never defined his approach to reading scriptural texts (ibid). In actuality, the provisional character of Barth’s reading demonstrated his genius. As Daniel Treier argues, Barth was a “pioneer,” the “forerunner” of the bible’s recovery from the grasp of historical criticism because he was committed to allowing the actual content of scripture to exert hermeneutical control over him (Introducing Theological Interpretation, 11-16). It was this submission to the content of scripture that freed it from an obsessive modern quest for historical verification while simultaneously allowing for a multiplicity of interpretative methods. Scripture, with all its various genres and messages, required a diverse hermeneutic, and in submission to the text one must relinquish all forms of control, one form being the rigorous application of a hermeneutical theory. As Barth writes “the exegesis of the bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible (CD I.1, 106).”
Despite this admonition many scholars have tried to describe aspects of Barth’s hermeneutical methods. One common approach focuses on Barth’s consistent engagement with biblical narrative. David Kelsey provides one such example, arguing that for Barth scripture is a grand narrative which itself renders the subject of the story (The Uses of Scripture, 32). Scripture functions as the mediator of the story’s subject, since the subject of the story “recedes from cognitive grasp the more he is abstracted from the story (39).”
While Barth’s exegesis has engendered renewed appreciation for biblical narrative, Kelsey misreads Barth since, for Barth, no text can render the Triune God to the reader independently. The bible can never imprison God; rather, in his freedom God can take hold of scripture for his sovereign purposes, and the bible becomes God’s Word in this event of his speaking through it (CD I.1, 109). One must not confuse abstraction with dependence, a frequent temptation in narrative theology. Here we encounter a second layer of provisionality in Barth’s reading of scripture. One must submit to the text, but never for the sake of the text itself. One submits to the text because in His freedom God has chosen to take hold of this text to use in the revelation of Himself.
Barth’s Christocentric logic comes into focus in his treatment of the three-fold Word of God. For Barth the reading of scripture is a word of God only in its relation to “the Word of God itself in the act of its being spoken in time (118).” We will return to the implications of this insight for preaching below, but here it is important to note that any partial or complete conception of a “Barthian hermeneutic” must avoid Kelsey’s mistake by affirming the contingency of scripture in relation to the Word itself, Jesus Christ. This frees the bible from captivity to any one agenda, thus rooting Barth’s submission to the text in all its multiplicity in the revelation of God himself: “it does not become God’s Word because we accord it faith but in the fact that it becomes revelation to us (110).” While granting the nature of the “wild and crooked tree,” the contention of this essay is that the fundamental contingency of reader, text, and preacher in relation to Jesus the Word provides the healthiest approach to understanding and applying Barth’s hermeneutics.
This thesis can be demonstrated by examining Barth’s “reading” of culture. As students of Barth know, his initial post-Safenwil years were marked by stressing the diastasis – the distance – between human culture and God (Palma’s 3, 117). In Barth’s later years, he began to move beyond this strong rejection of culture, which was undoubtedly conditioned by his refusal to submit to the Kaiser’s will (Metzger’s The Word of Christ, 9-10). In CD IV.3.1 Barth applies the same contingent logic in the relation between culture and God through his use of the biblical metaphor of light. Barth initially argues that Jesus Christ is the truth that
expresses, discloses, mediates and reveals itself, not as a truth but as the truth, in which all truths, the truth of God particularly and the truth of man, are enclosed, not as truths themselves, but as rays or facets of truth. (8, emphasis mine)This point is later reinforced by using the biblical metaphor of light to argue that
Jesus Christ is the light of life…everything which we have to say concerning the prophetic office of Christ rests on this emphasis, being distinguished by it, and by the implied delimitation, from what is also to be said of other prophets, teachers and witnesses of the truth, or of the prophecy entrusted to the Christian community and each individual Christian. (86, emphasis mine)Palma rightly argues that this does not entail the elimination of either church or culture, but rather makes their “lights” contingent on the Light, the Word of God, Jesus Christ (Karl Barth’s Theology of Culture, 32-3). For Barth, both biblical and cultural texts, including ecclesial cultural texts, can become true lights, true words of God only as they function as predicates of the Light of life and Word of God, Jesus Christ, being grasped by that Light and Word in the event of his self-revelation. It is this ultimate Light, this ultimate Word, which forms the final criterion which “we cannot handle (CD I.1, 93).”
Finally, one must note that the relativizing of cultural and ecclesial “texts” isn’t absolute. The church avoids capitulating into cultural “dialogue with itself” by attending closely to scripture (108). In its “writtenness” as the past-recollection of God’s self-revelation, scripture confronts the church as a “concrete authority,” which despite the ever-present danger of misreading has not and will not fail to “maintain its own life” as the fire that continually purifies the church of its idolatries (106).
Thus, for Barth, a primary hermeneutical principle is to read all texts with an eye to their fundamental contingency, deferring to the Word Himself. George Hunsinger characterizes this as Barth’s hermeneutical realism, which fleshes out in an analogical and self-involving hermeneutic (Disruptive Grace, 225). Such a hermeneutic respects the limits and multiplicity of texts, freeing them from all forms of captivity, allowing them to speak with full force as they are taken up by God in the event of revelation. In Barth’s phrase ‘it proclaims itself,’ argues John Webster, “one has found the Christological starting point for Barth’s understanding of the relationship between God and culture (Barth’s Moral Theology, 127).” Moreover, this simple phrase expresses a fundamental presupposition of all Barthian exegesis. Due to this presupposition, Saye’s thesis captures only one aspect of Barth’s perspective when he writes that “one must stand within the arena of church proclamation and read with an eye to finding Christ, that is stand in the outer ring (the church) and look through the middle ring (scripture) in order to see the center (Christ)” (“Wild and Crooked Tree,” 444). Saye’s thesis is incomplete because while seeking the Lord in accordance with his three-fold revelation, we must maintain that “He comes to us where and when He wishes (Barth, The Word in this World, 50).”
In Paul Tillich we meet an intriguing dialogue partner. While Barth made clear the substantial differences between their theologies, they did share some similar concerns (Letters, 144. See also Thomas’ Tillich, 28-9). Germane to this essay, they both displayed a deep concern with how to relate the sacred and secular realms to each other (Metzger, xix). In Tillich’s words, the fundamental problem for theology is “applying the relation of the absolute, which is implied in the idea of God, to the relativity of human religion” (On the Boundary, 40). Articulating this relation requires an understanding of how to read texts.
For Tillich, all theology – and therefore the reading of all texts – must serve to answer the questions of modern man (Kelsey, 65). Tillich contrasted his general approach with Barth in this regard, saying that Barth thought “the gospel should be thrown at man ‘like stones at his head,’” while “he wanted to present the Gospel as an answer to man’s question” (Thomas, 49). Tillich’s method for reading scripture – which can be characterized as “symbolic-expressive” (Kelsey, 65) – is birthed out of this apologetic approach. Fundamental is the belief that revelation is not a doctrine but an “event in which men receive power by which they are made new beings. It is at once a manifestation of that power and an occasion for healing, for salvation” (ibid). In order to articulate these revelatory events one conceptualizes them symbolically, and these symbols serve not only for recollection but also provide materials in which to experience future revelations; their purpose is to “express and occasion” revelation (65-6).
Looking at how Tillich reads cultural texts sheds helpful light on how biblical symbols function in expressing and occasioning revelation. Tillich’s famous maxim on the relation of religion and culture reads:
Culture has a claim on religion that it cannot surrender without surrendering its autonomy and therefore itself. It must determine the forms through which every content, including the ‘absolute’ content, expresses itself…As religion is the substance of culture, so culture is the form of religion. (On the Boundary, 69-70)Tillich is attempting to maintain the interdependence of the realms of religion and culture while simultaneously allowing for their differentiation. He argued that neither the sacred nor the secular sphere should devour the other, but confessed that there is an “inseparable division” between the two, which is “a witness to our human predicament” (Church’s Essential Tillich, 102-3).
This inseparable division prevented any type of foundation (or outside revelation) which could adjudicate between cultural and biblical texts. Thus the cultural form, the question of modern man, became constitutive of the meaning of biblical symbols. This is evident throughout Tillich’s preaching. When commenting on texts, he would occasionally note how “strange” such terms and ideas sounded to modern readers, which he would then proceed to translate into contemporary expressions, concepts, and idioms. One sermon dealing with Isaiah and Jeremiah’s warnings of impending doom strikingly illustrates the consequences of Tillich’s methods:
In the language of the prophets, it is the Lord Who shakes the mountains and melts the rocks. This is a language modern man cannot understand. And so God, who is not bound to any special language, not even to that of the prophets, spoke to the men of today through the mouths of our great scientists, and this is what he said: You yourselves can bring about the end upon yourselves. I give the power to shake the foundations of your earth into your hands…This is what God said to mankind through the work of the scientists and through their discovery of the key to the foundations of life. But through them He did even more. He forced His Word upon them, as He had forced it upon the prophets, in spite of their attempt ever to resist it. (The Shaking of the Foundations, 4)There are several points of note in this lengthy passage. There is the initial translation of biblical language into contemporary vernacular which, despite his deep suspicion, Barth could on occasion conscience. However, Tillich goes much further. God is not bound in any way to previous revelation of himself aside from the initial commonality of the biblical symbols, allowing the current cultural form to subsume the message of the prophets (cf. Kelsey, 66). The text is also wrenched out of the wider biblical narrative, leaving no barrier to modern concerns flooding the passage. The supernatural demise of earthly geographic features has been swallowed by destruction due to the recklessness of man. Finally, and most importantly, the agency of God in the original prophetic speeches now becomes the property of modern cultural sensibilities. The prophets believed God was the one to bring destruction, now humanity brings it on themselves. In the end, it seems likely that the only event of revelation possible would come from a vacuous God, subsequently filled with cultural texts.
In the interests of being even-handed, it is important to look also at Barth’s preaching, his use of scripture in proclaiming the Gospel. The early Barth succumbed to many of the same temptations as did Tillich, one example of which is his sermon after the tragedy of the Titanic. He later remarked about this sermon that he “had to make this disaster the main theme of my sermon, and a monster of a full-scale sermon resulted” (Homiletics, 118). Convinced that the biblical text was the best antidote to congregational boredom, Barth scrapped introductions and the desire for relevance and merely sought to preach in accordance with the truths that “God is the one who works,” and “we humans must try to point to what is said in scripture” (45, 80). Proclamation is contingently connected to scripture in much the same way as scripture is connected to the Word itself, thus forming the final circle in Barth’s three-fold Word of God. Hence, Barth prefers to call preaching “heralding,” in light of its provisional character (74). This orientation of pointing away from the preacher toward Jesus Christ is aptly illustrated in the Bremen Sermon, preached in November of 1934, during his Homiletics lectures. In his exposition of Mt 14:22-33, Barth comments:
He is not bound to us, but he comes to us. He comes to us where and when he wishes. And then that is always an event of his goodness. And this goodness of his which we hear about is an event that will continually encounter us as something new, an event which, God knows, we have never earned and which we may for our part neither demand, nor is it an event we can count upon, and it does not simply follow as a matter of course in our life or as a consequence of human history. No, when it comes, it stands before us as a divine miracle (The Word in this World, 50)In contrast to Tillich, the agency of God in revelation reigns supreme for Barth. Whether it is in proclamation or in the reading of scripture, the revelation of Jesus Christ is a criterion we cannot handle. Barth’s approach is based on the conviction that “preaching cannot try to relate to the divine within us. The miracle must always take place from above” (Homiletics, 125). Barth is just as concerned with man’s modern “situation,” but due to his close reading and submission to the biblical text, modern man’s concerns look very different to him than they do to Tillich. For Barth, what humanity needs is not the freedom to decide whether or not it will perish, but to know “who and what Jesus is” (45). Consequently “throwing rocks” is not the primary point of proclamation, but “leading the congregation to the text” (123-4). Speaking to modern man’s situation requires courage, and faithfulness to the text requires humility. But if an error must be made, it is better to err on the side of humility, of closeness to the text – not to hurt people, but to allow the Word of God to speak to them through the text (116-7). For Barth, then, closeness to the text isn’t a way to harm people, but to prevent the preacher from harming others by speaking out of turn.
When we bring Karl Barth into conversation with Paul Tillich, we are presented with two similar but finally incompatible visions for how to read well. For Tillich, biblical texts and cultural texts must be kept in constant tension while still acknowledging their independence. Without any criterion by which maintain and judge this dynamic, Tillich’s desire to communicate to modern man takes center stage, filtering data found offensive to the current cultural milieu out of the biblical text. In the end, biblical texts are read in light of cultural texts, so much so that God loses any actual agency and the prophetic Word of God is rendered obsolete. Reading any text becomes an exercise in self-affirmation.
In Karl Barth, the biblical text is given the utmost respect and submitted to, as is the preacher’s communication of that text in today’s world. Such texts, as important as they are, must ultimately submit to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is able to grasp such human words and in the event of his revelation reveal Himself to humanity. Aware of the danger of reading modern sentiments into the text, Barth centers all reading in this ultimate Word. Doing so provides him with a criterion by which to take both cultural and biblical texts seriously, freeing them to be both what they are and instruments of His grace. Exegeting texts, seeking for and discerning the Word Himself, will train one to be well-read. Finally, since the Word of God is ultimately the Lord of all texts, readers must let themselves be read by these texts, seeking and submitting to the Son’s exegesis of their lives. In this way, too, they must be “well-read.” Thus reading theologically requires the double focus of seeking to understand all texts in light of Christ, and of submitting all of our labor, including our reading, to being read by our Lord. Being well-read is thus a paradigm for true discipleship.
By Tripp Fuller
Maris makes a number of comparative statements between Barth and Tillich that fail to highlight the location of their actual differences. Unlike Barth, Tillich was committed to articulating the freedom of God’s revelatory coming ontologically. This may be an inappropriate move at a time where rejecting ontotheology is popular, but criticisms of Tillich cannot neglect to recognize that his theology is the result of his philosophical attempt to speak of God in a public arena Barth did not tread. Not understanding Tillich’s ontology leads to nonsensical statements like “the agency of God in revelation reigns supreme for Barth” and “biblical texts are read in the light of cultural texts, so much that God loses any actual agency.” Getting Tillich’s ontology is essential because some of what Maris assumes is unique to Barth is shared by Tillich but stated in a different key.
God’s freedom and agency in the revelatory event is not unique to Barth. Tillich’s discussion of the Unconditioned is essential for seeing how they are differentiated. For Tillich, “there is no reality, thing, or event which cannot become a bearer of the mystery of being and enter into a revelatory correlation. Nothing is excluded from revelation in principle” (Systematic Theology = ST, 118). The Unconditioned, God, is then that which makes reality, creation, possible. God does not need to be inferred from reality because the conditioned is always already connected to the Unconditioned. Theologically one could say that the world is rightly understood as creation and creation is always already asking the question of its Creator. In his 1925 lectures on Dogmatik, Tillich defines revelation as the “breakthrough of the unconditioned into the conditioned. It is neither realization nor destruction of the conditioned forms but their shaking and turning around” (65). For Tillich, in stark contrast to Barth, revelation is the opening of the self to reality as it truly is. This opening up of reality can only take place because “there is a point of ontological contact between our being and the ground of being, or the Unconditioned which is the bearer of our essential being” (James Reimer in Gert Hummel’s Truth and History, 234). Barth rejects outright that there is any point of contact between God and the world a priori of the event of revelation and for him this distinction follows logically from the qualitative difference between the infinite and the finite.
Tillich did not find it necessary to limit the event of God’s revelation to the Christian tradition, its texts, and such. Tillich believed that all conditioned reality, sacred and secular, stands in dynamic tension with the Unconditioned. This ontological situation is universal such that all of God’s creation can be taken up, allowing God’s freedom to be present and revealed as constitutive of creation’s fabric, which is dependent upon God’s loving freedom to rupture the conditioned reality.
In an open letter to Barth and Gogarten, Tillich argues that
in all religion and all secular culture there are phenomena which make visible the source on which they stand, the revelation of grace and judgment in terms of faith. There are powerfully symbolic phenomena in religion and culture which are nevertheless under the No but the context and the consideration of them make possible a metaphysics of history, a symbolic, paradoxical salvation history...this sensitivity to the depths is not to be viewed objectively or immediately but paradoxically, by faith and in the unity of Yes and No. (“Critical and Positive Paradox” in Beginnings of Dialectic Theology by James Robinson, 138)Tillich did not expect Barth to be satisfied with his articulation but he did want to problematize Barth’s own narrowing of revelation to the point which, in his mind, it become irreverent by being interested “only in the form of doctrine” (Protestant Era, 208). When Barth begins his Church Dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity, Tillich is left to wonder how the concept precedes the actual experience of the living and saving God. One can easily intuit Barth’s response that it is precisely the Triune God who is the free, sovereign, living, and loving God who saves. This was, is, and will always be God’s identity. Yet there remains a more pressing question: how can the Trinity, a doctrinal formula that developed over hundreds of years, in conversation with the very philosophical systems Barth is rejecting, end up being the conceptual a priori for a Christian discussion of divine revelation?
Tillich sees Barth’s idea “of God coming to man totally from the outside” as having great religious power that is yet disproportional to its philosophical power, for it cannot occur in such a way. God’s coming requires context if it is to be received, for Tillich. The divine object can never be present in that God, the Unconditioned, can never be contained in conditioned reality and thereby participating in the dialectic of subjects and objects. In contrast with Barth, however, is Tillich’s understanding of the ever-present potentiality of ultimate meaning rupturing into existence. The contrast plays out in Tillich’s discussion of the reality of revelation in his Systematic Theology, where he discusses relational constellations in which the Word of God can become present in human words (157-9). Take the act of proclamation, for example, in which Tillich identifies a number of variables: the meaning and communicative power of the words spoken and the understanding and existential reception on behalf of the hearer. In the correlation of these variables, the Word can potentially become present. He does not limit the meaning of the Word to a three-fold form but affirms the enormous diversity of means by which the Word can become present, all of which are united “in one meaning, namely, ‘God manifest’ - manifest in himself, in creation, in the history of revelation, in the final revelation, in the Bible, in the words of the church and her members” (159). While Maris believes that Tillich and Barth’s visions of how to read well are incompatible and they are different in many ways, they are both asserting that a text is scared if and only if God takes it up in God’s freedom - if the textual encounter becomes an event in which the God present in Christ ruptures the world as it was and makes it new.
Barth rejects Tillich’s philosophical account. For Barth there is one break-in structure in Jesus Christ and it is an act of divine grace. This structure is given in the event of Revelation and not in the act of Creation, nor is it lying dormant in the structures of the human (CD 2/1, 172). The desire to find a place within the created order for an anticipatory presence of God that precedes God’s action as redeemer is to imagine a God that can be something other than redeemer. This should not be possible for a Christian theologian according to Barth, but for Tillich, it is the faithful endeavor of the living tradition’s philosophical theologians. Reinhold Niebuhr located their parting of the ways in traditions running back in history to the Church Fathers themselves; “if Karl Barth is the Tertullian of our day, abjuring ontological speculations for fear that they may obscure or blunt the kerygma of the Gospel, Tillich is the Origen of our period, seeking to relate the Gospel message to the disciplines of our culture and to the whole of history” (Niebuhr in Kegley and Bretall’s Theology of Paul Tillich, 217). Maybe the time of the metaphysician is past, but a preference for one of the early church’s theological trajectories need not necessitate an incomplete hearing of the other.
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