‘Barth’s Theological Ontology of Holy Scripture‘, by Alfred H. Yuen
Pickwick Publications, 198 pp. $23.00
In this volume, Alfred H. Yuen wants to sketch for us Karl Barth’s answer to the question of just what Scripture is. Over four chapters, Yuen covers a number of themes: Barth’s developing ideas about Scripture, the role of the Holy Spirit, God’s freedom and a number of other related topics.
The first chapter surveys Barth’s views of Scripture from 1906-1915 by way of examining a number of his lesser-known sermons. This was a particularly interesting chapter, since I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the texts surveyed here. Barth’s treatment of Zwingli (who is seen as reversing the priority of institutions over individuals in interpreting Scripture) ends with Barth seeing Zwingli as ‘domesticating’ Scripture (something Barth would always seek to avoid doing), though as Yuen points out at this stage in his development, Barth would appear to fall prey to the same error prior to 1915, since Barth allows for the role of the individual conscience a significant weight in interpretation. Post-1915, however, Yuen sees Barth articulating an ontology where ‘Scripture is the Spirit’s means of drawing us into the “river of life” in the world of God whose will, reign, power, and love, moreover, are antithetical to that of the “dark world.”‘ (p. 45)
In chapter two (which is for my money the meatiest chapter), Yuen gets to the heart of the matter, continuing to trace Barth’s development through the ‘Römerbrief’ , ‘Göttingen Dogmatics’ as well as Barth’s relation to the Reformed Confessions. The ground here is familiar to students of Barth: Scripture as a witness to Jesus Christ. Scripture as human words employed by the Spirit, who through the gift of new humanity makes it possible for humans to become readers of Scripture. Scripture as having its being only in virtue of God turning towards us. It is this last point that is the most significant: the hermeneutical ‘situation’, as Yuen sees it, is the outpouring of God’s love in the economy of salvation. Scripture has its being in this ‘new world’. For Barth, Scripture is firmly soteriological, a miracle of grace, continually illuminated to its human readers.
In the third chapter the theme of illumination is expounded on, with the focus being the Gospel of John. It is only by grace that John writes as an apostolic witness – Yuen quotes Barth quoting Augustine to note that ‘those who wrote the scriptures were also men, they do not shine of themselves’, (p 126). Yuen also focuses on the ‘externality’ of Scripture as the Word, which cashes out to be a defense against God and revelation becoming something ‘generally available’, in the text. This roughly means that Scripture is a corollary of God’s complete and absolute freedom.
Yuen argues, in the fourth and final chapter, that Barth’s construal of the biblical text has to be seen from within the soteriological framework – the priority here is on the saving action of the whole triune God. It is only within this economy of salvation, within the reconciling action of God, does Scripture have its being. In other words, the texts are what they are only by virtue of God’s actions for us, in Christ, by the Spirit.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and a good way to become acquainted with the more obscures texts Barth wrote before the ‘Church Dogmatics’. There’s close attention to the historical development of Barth’s position, and detailed fleshing out of some more common themes in Barth – Scripture as witness, for example. I would have liked more practical examples of Barth’s ontology ‘in action’, as it were – especially in relation to the propositional content of Scripture and exegesis. Yuen is quick to point out that for Barth, the content of Scripture is God – well and good. But when the Spirit is illuminating Scripture, is there any propositional content that’s being illuminated? How would this fit into Barth’s scheme? How, exactly, does the Spirit illuminate in biblical reading? Does the reader just wait to be struck by the spirit? Surely not, but it would have been good to see a bit more of a view from ‘on the ground’. One also gets the feeling that Barth’s doctrine of Scripture is a bit too contingent – could the Spirit use anything in the same way He uses Scripture? What makes Scripture so ‘special’, as it were?
There are some stylistic issues, though, that detracted a bit from the book, unfortunately. After nearly every quotation of text from Barth (and there are many), Yuen writes, ‘thus Barth on (insert subject here)’. This gets very repetitive after a while, and gives the feeling of a punt to Barth instead of a more sustained engagement. A similar issue is that Yuen will often give a pair of reasons, or points, that he’s trying to drive home, but it will sometimes be many pages between the ‘first’ and the ‘second’. It’s very easy to completely lose track of these pairs, especially since there’s no bolded text or numbers to list the points he’s making.
Having said all that, this is a worthwhile volume. Yuen hammers home the extent to which God, not the human reader, has the priority for interpreting the biblical text, from the economy of salvation to the Spirit’s use of Scripture to the Spirit’s illumination of Scripture to its readers. Quibbles aside, I recommend this book for anyone interested in a close, detailed study of Barth’s theological ontology of Holy Scripture.
**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review