I am coming to the conclusion of James Barr’s 1990-91 Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology.
At the beginning of his last lecture Barr summarized the thrust of his argument so far:
We have shown I think that principles akin to those of natural theology are present in the Bible both in the New Testament and in the Old and that the connection between them is enhanced and deepened when we take into account the transmission of ideas as between the two testaments and especially as illustrated by the so-called apocryphal literature. Even if the elements of natural theology are considered as a somewhat minor constituent within the Bible the functions of these elements remain very essential. In particular in certain relations they form the cement which links together various themes of scripture and equally they form one of the channels through which themes are enabled to pass from the earlier stages of their formulation to the later most importantly in the connection between Old and New Testaments. Thus we are in a position to say that theologies which in principle denied natural theology ran into a deep inner contradiction. Though they aspired to provide through the rejection of natural theology a much deeper and more consistent base for the deployment of biblical truth in effect their own principle forced them away from the realities of the Bible.
The vivid and negative polemic against Karl Barth continues in this last lecture. For instance:
“ The countless pages of wearisome inept and futile exegesis in the Church Dogmatics especially in the later volumes were only a testimony to the fact that the Bible cannot be used theologically when the work of biblical scholarship is brushed aside.”
Barr’s point, I think, was that the turn against natural theology actually inhibited understanding the Bible, because natural theology was part of the Bible.
But I am looking for a positive way forward in biblical interpretation. What I remember about Barr from the 1970s was that he had challenged the approach of Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). I agreed with Barr then and refused to use Kittel. This is partly because I am an anti-Nazi bigot and Kittel was another Nazi. Of course, Kittel did not write most of the articles in the dictionary. Prominent German New Testament scholars, including Rudolf Bultmann and Oscar Cullmann were contributors.
The approach was flawed and James Barr wrote Semantics of Biblical Language largely to criticize the TDNT’s isolating of words from their context. This influenced me to avoid doing word studies as a means of interpretation. I might have overdone that. I had not read Barr much since the ‘70s.
But I see some continuity with what Barr had previously written. He carried his criticism forward to the new interpretive method of canonical interpretation. Yes, he knew that that the books of the Bible were those the church decided to read in worship. Daniel was in. Enoch was out. But for interpretation, he thought it was a serious mistake to isolate canonical books from the others.
An instance of what Barr meant is how he thought Paul used the Wisdom of Solomon. To ignore that connection means to misunderstand Paul. He also pointed out that Daniel needs Enoch for its interpretation. Some books are biblical but not canonical.
He thought it was a mistake to make the interpretation of the Bible a matter of finding internal connections between ideas within the biblical text. The texts rely partly on external input from culture and from what Barr called natural theology.
The unintended result of the Barthian rejection of natural theology was to isolate biblical theology from the larger questions of philosophical and moral theology. It also separated Catholics and Protestants to the extent that Catholics remained willing to engage natural theology.
As an example of all this, he used the concept of Holy War in the Hebrew Bible. Such war often involved the sacred destruction of property and people captured in war, the herem. Biblical theology spent much effort explaining that this was not motivated by hatred, but by a religious devotion to God that eschewed the corruption involved in taking booty or slaves.
However, this understanding is no help in dealing with the fact that the Bible claims mass killing was commanded by God. This is a theological and moral problem. But Barr thought that the exclusion of natural theology caused the biblical theology movement not to take the moral offense seriously. People spilled a lot of ink about a theology of holy war that was internal to the biblical texts.
Barr did not try to provide a solution to the moral problem except to claim that natural theology had to be brought in as a conversation-partner. Since mass murder and ethnic cleansing based in ideology and religion are contemporary events (he was talking about stuff going on in the 1980s and 90s, not ISIS), we can’t isolate this question to an internal study of the Bible.
Barr threw a knock-out punch against the twentieth-century Protestant rejection of natural theology. But he has not been as helpful to me has I had hoped in forging a new way of interpretation.
One avenue I want to pursue is his statement that a lone holdout among twentieth century German biblical theologians was H. H. Schmid. Barr said that
“Schmid put forward a very interesting and original proposal according to which creation was the main and comprehensive horizon the history of religion and the common ground with other religions was positively valued and the themes of order and peace were given centrality.”