Learning from Busch on the Pietists’ claim that Barth was not Faithful to Scripture

In his treatment of the back-and-forth between Barth and the Pietists in the 1920s, Eberhard Busch notes that one of the main criticisms the latter leveled against the former was that he failed to be sufficiently biblical, or sufficiently faithful to Scripture (to put the same basic point two different ways). Busch analyzes this criticism, and the problems that he points out in the Pietists on this point are instructive to all who would do theology in conversation with Scripture. Below I sketch Busch’s analysis.

Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth & the Pietists: The Young Karl Barth’s Critique of Pietism & Its Response (Daniel W. Bloesch, trans.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004):217-25.

In an introduction before getting into his numbered points of analysis, Busch notes that one difficulty the Pietists had in engaging Barth was that the latter was intellectually sophisticated while the former made it a point of faith to be intellectually unsophisticated. (Strides have been made since Mark Noll pointed out The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, but the American situation remains all too similar to that Busch describes.) So Busch notes that the Pietists claimed that Barth’s theology was rooted in philosophy:
How did they know about this bias in his thought? His theology was ‘not simple enough’ and therefore ‘not biblical enough’; thus ‘the word of philosophy emerged from it more than the word of the Bible.’ His theology as well as his language lacked ‘simplicity’ and thus removed itself from ‘Christianity’ that is ‘so simple at its core.’ For this reason the Pietistic circles of that time felt justified in creating the impression that ‘Barth was a despiser of the Bible.’
On to Busch’s numbered analysis. Busch undertakes in this section to argue for what would need to be the case, what conditions would have to be satisfied, for the Pietist criticism to be justified.
  1. The Pietists would need to take more seriously Barth’s self-understanding as an exegete interpreting the biblical text:
    The fact that [Barth] used a language shaped by ‘philosophical’ concepts, that he had a complicated way of thinking does not really prove in itself that he did not also talk as an exegete at the same time. Conversely, a language and a simple way of thinking that dispenses with Kantian terminology does not in itself furnish any evidence that the language and way of thinking are shaped by the Bible.
  2. The Pietists would need to be open to the possibility that if they think Barth improperly mixed some philosophy in with the Bible, it is entirely possible that they did the same:
    Barth’s interpretation and critique could be certainly mistaken, but when they responded to it and rejected it, they referred to the fact that the position of the critic was itself not (‘fully’) biblical but also philosophically conditioned. They acted as if they knew they were immune to the danger they detected here, simply portraying their own concerns as ‘biblical.’ This naïve matter-of-factness had to appear suspicious.
    The fact that their [the Pietists’] language and way of thinking is also conditioned by contemporary history does not by itself say anything for or against the truth and legitimacy of their concern. But it does say something against prematurely identifying their own concern with the biblical witness. Only by giving up such an identity does the freedom of the biblical witness to overcome all the limitations of its interpreters come into focus.
  3. The Pietists would have to oppose Barth’s exegesis with more convincing exegesis:
    By limiting themselves to occasionally quoting a biblical statement to refute an assertion made by Barth, the Pietistic authors evidently assumed that the meaning of the quoted verse is a foregone conclusion. To be more precise, they assumed that the quoted verse can of course only be understood in terms of the opinion that in their view is supported by the verse.
  4. Closely related to the preceding, the Pietists would have to show that the verses they adduce against Barth do in fact prove what they think those verses prove. There is no nice summary quotation to lift from Busch on this point, but he treats two examples (Acts 17.31 and Romans 5.5).
  5. (Note: in the translated version of Busch's text, there isn't a #5 here - I have supplied it because the prose seems to indicate it should be there.) The Pietists would have to avoid proof-texting, or as Busch puts it, “to avoid the impression that they were arbitrary in selecting” the biblical verses cited against Barth:
    This [selection] was done in a way that they not only refrained from exegeting biblical passages but also refrained from considering as broad a spectrum as possible of various biblical statements on a particular point… They also refrained from drawing on complementary biblical concepts… Thus they refrained from referring to those Bible verses that could complement their own statements or possibly correct them and put them in proper perspective.
    By concentrating on the quotation of Bible verses supporting the Pietistic concern…other Bible verses were left out of consideration which could conversely be lacking in Pietistic theology. And this must be added: What happened to the claim of the Pietists that they could ‘communicate the total chorus of New Testament truth’ and open up ‘the full riches of Scripture’?
    Finally, a very fine indictment of proof-texting and the underlying hermeneutic it assumes:
    They way they backed up their counterargument with Bible verses seems to be rooted in an understanding of Scripture that assumes faithfulness to Scripture is guaranteed by merely adding up Bible quotations and by stringing together proof texts. The problem with such an understanding of Scripture is that the danger of distorting the meaning of the Bible verses in question by taking them out of context is always lurking in the background. In addition, the never-ending but always essential issue of what is really crucial in the biblical witness is left out of consideration. Then we run the risk of making certain details the most important thing, even if those details may well be significant as such.
It seems to me that much of what Busch says here remains pertinent in our own North American context today, not only with reference to Barth, but with reference to the theological enterprise in general.


Bobby Grow said…
I have Busch's book in my possession right now; I wasn't sure that I was going to go ahead and read it at the moment (push it back to another time), but now I think I will. Thanks, for the motivation, Travis.
C Collins Winn said…
I would agree with Busch on these points. One important qualifier that needs to be highlighted, however, is that the kind of Pietism that is representative in Busch's analysis is of a very conservative sort, the Gemeinshaftsbewegung. That is to say, there are many different types of Pietism and the one with which Barth found himself wrestling with was much more like conservative evangelicalism than the progressive pietism represented in figures like the Blumhardts or Philip Matthias Hahn, Oetinger, or even Johanna Eleanora Peterson, not to mention someone like Zinzendorf, whom Barth grew to love. What we need is an evangelical pietism that draws on this progressive stream of the Pietist tradition.
Thanks for that bit of perspective, Christian!

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