To read is to interpret. Reading joins two worlds together, the reader’s and the author’s. Unfortunately, if the reader’s world and the author’s world are years and places apart, you can’t just assume that you can get the authorial intent so easily. And, if we try to understand the biblical authors’ world correctly, I don’t see the reason why we shouldn’t apply the same strict criteria of historical sensitivity against other authors, living or dead. To read is to exegete.
After reading Bonhoeffer’s biography, I just realized that many things in Barth’s dogmatics would only make sense if you read them against the backdrop of World War II and Nazi. The word “decision”, which figures often in Bonhoeffer, also plays an important role in Barth. It doesn’t do justice to say that they simply submit to an existentialist theology. The word plays an important role in Barth and Bonhoeffer because they need to exercise life-altering decisions (especially Bonhoeffer) almost daily living in the increasingly totalitarian regime under Hitler (eventually Barth was expelled from Germany and Bonhoeffer was hanged for his involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler — and Bonhoeffer would argue that to murder Hitler is the ethical thing to do at that time). And some of the motifs in Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth would make better sense if we include this historical setting as the anchor (e.g., emphasis on events, thoroughgoing Christocentrism, denial of natural theology, etc.).
SSA Rossi of the Criminal Minds always said that the first question in victimology is, “Why?” I guess the same applies with reading a text, especially the ancient one. We will misread and misrepresent the author badly if we lose this historical sensitivity (a blunt example would be how we read Calvin’s concept of predestination; unfortunately I forgot who said this, but I think it was Barth who said that it must be read against the backdrop of the dogma of extra ecclesiam nulla salus). The starting point is to ask, “Why did the author write what he or she wrote?” This question will haunt me for the rest of my life, and I will be happy to embrace it back.