No other possibility is open to me except the possibility of being a man of the earth – O wretched man that I am! We have seen at last the reality of religion; we have recognized what men are. How vast a gulf separates the nineteenth-century conquering-hero attitude to religion from that disgust of men at themselves, which is the characteristic mark of true religion! – But Jesus Christ is the new man, standing beyond all piety, beyond all human possibility. He is the dissolution of the man of this world in his totality. He is the man who has passed from death to life. He is – what I am not – my existential I – I – the I which in God, in the freedom of God – I am! Thanks be to God: through Jesus Christ our Lord I am not the wretched man that I am.

— Karl Barth, from the magnificent peroration of his commentary on the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Before I go any further with these reflections, let me just note that I am not a theologian, not a biblical scholar, not a Barth scholar. I’m just a reader (though I admit that I am going to be teaching this book, very unprofessionally, in a Great Texts class next term). I have no doubt that professional Barthians have already said everything I’ll be saying here. I’m just posting about this extraordinary book in order to force myself to think more clearly about what I’m reading.

The passage quoted above is about as perfect an example as you could find of Barth’s dialectical method, in which every affirmation gets followed by a counter-affirmation and the tension between the two is (usually!) left to stand as a witness to … well, various things, including the human incapacity to comprehend the things of God, the inevitable constrictions of theological language, and sinners’ relentlessly clever determination to twist every affirmation (even the affirmation of their own profound corruption) to their advantage. Scholars usually speak of Barth’s “dialectical theology,” but what’s going on here is dialectical exegesis — and Barth exegetes in this way not simply because he has a preference for it but because, as he insists repeatedly in the prefaces to this book, he does not mean to comment on Paul but to read and think with Paul. “True apprehension can be achieved only by a strict determination to face, as far as possible without rigidity of mind, a tension displayed more or less clearly in the ideas written in the text.” In this sense Barth, though in so many ways a critic of the theology of Schleiermacher, strives to live out Schleiermacher’s insistence that the interpreter should strive to understand an author better than the author understood himself.

So in reading Romans 7 Barth strives to mimic in his commentary what he perceives to be the dialectical character of the text. But it strikes me that chapter 7 is by far the most dialectical part of the letter; other passages do not have this back-and-forth, this yes-and-yet-also-no character, at least not nearly so pronouncedly. So it seems that Barth has taken chapter 7 as the hermeneutical key to the whole letter, the part that expresses the character of Paul’s argument most fully, and then deployed that method in commenting on the rest of the letter as well. This strategy reminds me of the usual way that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is defended: the obscure parts are to be interpreted in light of the clear parts. Barth seems to be saying: The rhetorically mixed parts of this letter are to be interpreted in the style of the most rhetorically pure part.

Which is defensible. But it makes me wonder what a commentary would look like that took the eighth chapter as its methodological model.