Kimlym J. Bender, “Christ and Canon, theology and history—the Barth-Harnack dialogue revisited” in Theology as Conversation: The Significance Of Dialogue In Historical And Contemporary Theology: A Festschrift For Daniel L. Migliore, Bruce McCormack and Kimlym J. Bender eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, pp. 3-29
Because of the diversity and heterogeneity of the books in the Bible, Harnack insisted historical knowledge and critical reflection on necessary to understand its content. Without these faith would advance an unchecked speculative fantasy at best and at worst a theological dictatorship that “seeks to culture the consciences of others with its own subjective experience”.
Barth responded to the criticism with an emphasis on unity [between Christ of faith and Jesus of history]. For Barth, the Jesus of Nazareth no much historical science fails to display Jesus true identity is abstracted from the confession of him as the risen Lord. If Christ is the Lord of history, any historical reconstructions are his earthly life that ignores his Lordship can at best be an abstraction.
Historical science alone is unable to move beyond speculative reconstruction to confession.
Indeed, the precise determination of the Christian canon’s development is in a large part lost to history. But the question of its subject matter is clearly shown to us to be the God to whom the canon witnesses and the contemporary confessions of faith profess.
It is the unity of the Lord that grounds the unity of Scripture and the makes it a unified witness. To understand Scripture rightly entails that one read it as a participant in its truth. (For Harnack, this emotional attachment risks of loss of scientific objectivity and responsibility.)
Barth’s commitment to a different kind of objectivity and the responsibility is expressed in his third edition of the Romans commentary where he insists that we must think not so much about Paul but after and with Paul towards the subject matter with which he himself was concerned. (For a discussion of what exactly Barth takes to be historical science positive and preparatory function, which Barth has only alluded to but never fully explains, see Burnett, Karl Barth‘s Theological Exegesis, pp.230-240)
However, Harnack score a point. While the exact genetic history of canonical development may ultimately be unanswerable, we are still left with the canonical question concerning its composition and the parameters, which is not solved by the ultimate definition of the canon’s theological and the Christological nature. For example, shall we be siding with Luther’s (and thus Judaism’s) version of the Hebrew OT or the Catholic Church’s (and thus the engine church’s) LXX OT? Whose canon? Whose Scripture? (the same question needs to be posed against Childs.)
Latter Barth is clearly in his mature reflections aware of the historical messiness of canonical development in the contested boundaries, is refusing all the way the [confessional] church any final authority. He deems that the revelation of God which comes through Scripture is the ultimate basis and criteria for the canon, which must overrides even historic usages and past decisions of councils. But paradoxically, if anyone today wants to challenge particular books of their canonical status or revelatory significance, Barth would give precedence to the Church’s past decisions by aligning them with the obedient hearing of God’s voice.
Barth views the Scripture through a single lens of Christology, whereas Harnack employs multiple lenses, including a Kantian universal rationalism modified in light of Schleiermacher, a modern Lutheran law and the gospel dichotomy modified by Ritschl, and his spiritual moralism alike. Though he still attempted to preserve the uniqueness of the person of Jesus against Troeltsch’s appeal for a more consistent/critical historicism, he is separating the message of Jesus from his own historical [i.e., Jewish rabbinical and first century eschatological] roots in favor of a universal moral message that it can be extracted from both Testaments. Barth on the contrary is classically orthodox—he sees Christ foreshadowed in the old and attested in the new (But still, in various fronts, he has been criticized for having not taken the Old Testament on its own terms).
In the end, if Barth really needs to be faulted in his open confessional position, it was in his ready acceptance of the findings of radical biblical criticism, telling to criticize not only its presuppositions but also its findings. This was due in no small part to Barth’s early liberal inheritance [from Hermann]: his early ambivalence toward history and a dialectic of contradiction that has only to be overcome in time with a dialectic of correspondence.
But no doubt, what intrigues many of us today in the Harnack/Barth dabate, is Barth’s hermeneutics of trust and the canonical richness, rather than Harnack’s hermeneutics of suspicion and canonical reductionism.
- Rowan Williams on theological education (cruciality.wordpress.com)