Review of M. S. Gignilliat, Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth's Theological Exegesis of Isaiah

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Mark S. Gignilliat, Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth's Theological Exegesis of Isaiah (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009). Pp. 182, Hardcover, US$99.95, ISBN 978-0-7546-5856-6.

With this slim volume, Mark Gignilliat (Assistant Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School) wades into two of the most exciting trends unfolding on the contemporary theological landscape in North America. On the one hand, the United States and Canada have been enjoying something of a “Barth Renaissance” since about the mid-1990s that shows little sign of abating. On the other hand, originating at a similar time, the guild of biblical studies has devoted significant attention to investigating the history of the interpretation of Scripture (so-called “reception-criticism”). The legacy of Karl Barth has long been associated with the impetus to draw together exegetical and theological studies, and several volumes have been devoted to understanding precisely how Barth envisioned this. Investigations into Barth’s biblical interpretation typically fall into one of three categories. First, there are those volumes devoted to the analysis of various aspects of Barth’s conception of inspiration, infallibility, and general doctrine of Scripture. Far more numerous are those volumes that seek to examine Barth’s explicit comments on hermeneutics, particularly in relationship to the historical-critical method or post-modern philosophy. The last group of studies has to do with teasing out the theological, hermeneutical and exegetical sensibilities at work in Barth’s actual exegesis of Scripture as he set it out in various contexts. It is to this last sub-section of scholarship that Gignilliat’s work belongs. While there have been some studies that address Barth’s use of the Old Testament in general, Gignilliat contributes a picture of how Barth actually implemented a specific Old Testament book in the crafting of his Church Dogmatics.

In the first chapter, Gignilliat provides a lucid presentation of some of the main currents in Old Testament scholarship during Barth’s career. Of particular interest is Gignilliat’s tour through the Briefwechsel between Barth and his colleague Walther Baumgartner, an Old Testament scholar deeply entrenched in the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Barth’s coy and evasive replies to Baumgartner unveil the depth of difference between their two approaches, one reading Scripture as a historian and the other conducting exegesis from the explicit vantage point of a confessing theologian. In addition, Gignilliat also sets Barth’s approach to the Old Testament in contrast with that of Wilhelm Vischer, an Old Testament exegete who argued for the direct identification of Jesus Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though Barth had much more in common with Vischer than Baumgartner, he maintained significant reservations over Vischer’s claim that the witness of the Old Testament to Christ (Christuszeugnis) could be verified by intellectual methods to the unbiased observer.

In the second chapter, Gignilliat orients his readers to the dogmatic location that the Old Testament occupies in the Church Dogmatics. For Barth, both the Old and New Testaments form the canonical witness to the time of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The normative witness to Christ of the final form of the Old Testament is, for Barth, a belief rooted in his reading of the New Testament and the Christian tradition. Though the subject matter to which both testaments point is the same, the form of the witness made by each testament is different. The New Testament witnesses to Christ from the time of fulfillment, while the Old Testament witnesses to Christ from the time of expectation (die Zeit der Erwartung). By designating the subject matter of the Old Testament as God’s revelation in Christ, Gignilliat exposes how Barth transgressed one of the fundamental convictions of the dominant Old Testament scholarship of his day: anachronism. However, Barth is careful to add the qualification that the Old Testament makes its witness to Christ indirectly, through its own voice speaking of the hither-to unfulfilled covenant. In retrospect from the revelation of God in Christ, the ambiguous status of Israel’s covenant with God is seen by Barth to have been brought to fulfillment in the life of Christ.

Gignilliat’s third and fourth chapters are devoted to examining Barth’s specific use of Isaianic texts as they are implemented in strategic locations in the Church Dogmatics. While Gignilliat draws from a wide breadth of Barth’s use of Isaiah, his treatment of Barth’s use of the Emmanuel tradition (Isa 7-8) may be taken as representative. Gignilliat lists two places where Isa 7:14—the controversial prophecy of the birth of Emmanuel—is mentioned by Barth in “homiletical fashion” or as the “assumed background” to the virgin birth tradition. For Gignilliat, these passing references do not appear to bear much significance. More important for him is Barth’s extended exegesis of Isaiah 7:14 at the very beginning of Church Dogmatics 4.1, where Barth sets up one of the main themes he will expound throughout his doctrine of reconciliation. For the purposes to which Barth puts the Emmanuel prophecy in this section, the controversy over the correct translation of עַלְמָה (either as “young woman” or, like the LXX, “virgin”) bears little consequence. The sign of Emmanuel is not the pregnant woman but the birth of the child who will witness to God’s judgment and grace. Furthermore, Barth concedes that the Emmanuel traditions in Isaiah have been brought together from various sources, but such knowledge does not significantly alter Barth’s preference to work with their final form. In Isaiah’s final form, the identity of Emmanuel is obscure and it is precisely in this obscurity that Barth finds space to draw out the Christological referent. For Barth, the broader theological currents in the canon relativize the importance of knowing the precise historical identity of Emmanuel that the original author of the text had in mind. Rather, in the broad streams of both Isaiah and the canon itself Emmanuel is the content of the God who reveals himself in action in history. Canonically, then, these Isaianic texts which speak of Emmanuel reveal a “pressure” that is only finally understood when read retrospectively from the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In the final chapter, Gignilliat attempts to describe the general contours of Barth’s exegesis of Isaiah as he has analyzed it in the previous cases. Gignilliat finds both careful, detailed exegesis of Isaiah in the Church Dogmatics, but also passing and homiletical references in which Barth’s precise exegesis is simply not displayed for his readers. What is consistent about Barth’s use of Isaiah is his conviction of the Christological and Trinitarian subject matter of the text. Gignilliat’s research has also shown that Barth is generally concerned about the “plain meaning” of the text of Isaiah, when that text is read in its canonical form. Barth held Isaiah’s Christological content and “plain sense” together by capitalizing on obscurities and ambiguities in the text itself. Through Isaiah’s own ambiguity interpreted within the broader theological themes of the canon, Barth could draw the lines of expectation by which witness is made to Jesus Christ. Gignilliat devotes the remainder of the final chapter to an exposition of Brevard Childs’ understanding of the Old Testament’s multi-levelled witness to Christ. Gignilliat identifies the conviction of both Barth and Childs to read Scripture canonically and confessionally as decisive for both authors to understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Also common for them both is how their detection of a certain canonical intentionality in the final form of the Old Testament itself helps these authors to hold to the plain sense of the text without having to resort to allegory. In this canonical approach, the figural meaning of the Old Testament is integral to the text’s plain sense.

With this volume Gignilliat has preformed a fine service to both the biblical studies and theological guilds by expositing Barth’s use of the text of Isaiah in his Church Dogmatics. Particularly helpful are Gignilliat’s sensitivities to the history of Old Testament scholarship and especially his own expertise as an exegete of Isaiah. On several occasions Gignilliat suggests how Barth could have handled a particular text in Isaiah but chose not to. This helps the reader to attain a clearer picture of some of Barth’s exegetical decisions, and perhaps also some of his limitations. There is a fundamental difficulty that hamstrings Gignilliat’s work, though. While Barth referred to Isaiah on several occasions in the Church Dogmatics, the peculiar genre of his work significantly limits the sort of conclusions that one can draw about Barth’s “exegesis of Isaiah” in general. That is to say, the Church Dogmatics is not a typical biblical commentary in which the author is under some obligation to show his exegetical hand at every turn and to display how his or her interpretation coheres with the breadth of the text. This is not to say that Barth did not conceive of the Church Dogmatics as a commentary on Scripture in some form; he certainly did. However, Barth’s presentation of Scriptural exegesis in the Church Dogmatics is shaped and determined in a reciprocal relationship with the dogmatic questions he is asking. This means that at nearly every point where Gignilliat attempts to make general assessments of what Barth is doing in a particular exegetical portion in the Church Dogmatics, one must insert the qualification “in this instance.” It ought to be said, though, that Gignilliat shows awareness of this problem and he does take significant pains to outline the theological context surrounding Barth’s use of Isaiah. Even with such precautions, Gignilliat often makes evaluative comments of Barth’s use of Isaiah that appear to forget the limitations inherent in his methodology. This problem is not necessarily a fatal one, however, and Gignilliat’s analysis of Barth’s use of Isaiah can still illuminate how Isaiah might be read theologically as Christian Scripture. For this, biblical scholars and theologians alike ought to be grateful.

Dustin Resch, McMaster University