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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Break with Historical Relativism

The thralldom of theological interpretation of the Old Testament to questions of ‘history’ was definitively and decisively broken by the spectacular commentary on the book of Romans by Karl Barth in 1919 (Barth 1968). At the time, Barth was a little-known Swiss Calvinist pastor. He came to recognize through the First World War that theological ‘liberalism’—committed as it was to evolutionary developmentalism—had reduced biblical ‘faith claims’ to contextual relativism that provided no intellectual grounding for bold theological stands or courageous ethical decision making. In a frontal assault on the assumptions of such developmental relativism, Barth initiated a theological programme that was destined to become the definitive articulation of evangelical Christian faith in the twentieth century. It is impossible to overstate the revolutionary import of Barth, who insisted upon the normative theological claims of the Bible that broke free of relativizing, descriptive studies in the history of Israelite religion. It is hardly an overstatement to say that Barth opened the way for an entirely new enterprise in Old Testament theology, a study of normative theological claims of the Bible that would fund the critical thought and ethical action of faith communities and that would, derivatively, inform and infuse public issues in societies still roughly attentive to a biblical inheritance.

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