Barth is doing something quite unique in his Romans commentary. He draws upon Romans as Scripture to do in his own day what Paul’s text did in its original situation. He’s not merely trotting out the exegetical details so that Paul’s text lies safely “back there” in the first century. The exegesis is indeed essential, but he’s going beyond that to a necessary second step—to listen for the Word in the words. For Barth, interpretation “involves the reconsideration of what is set out in the Epistle, until the actual meaning of it is disclosed” (pp. 6-7).
He distinguishes between the “preliminary” work of historical criticism and “genuine understanding and interpretation.”
“By genuine understanding and interpretation I mean that creative energy which Luther exercised with intuitive certainty in his exegesis” (p. 7).
The Romans commentary is indeed much like Luther’s Galatians commentary in this sense. They’re both unleashing the Gospel to devastate idolatrous pretensions in their own day in order to reveal the Gospel’s powerful redeeming and renewing work (In this regard some “new perspective” interpreters have misread Luther. Does he really think that Paul is going after “the papists” throughout Galatians? As an exegete, probably not. As a proto-Barthian, probably so!).
Barth notes “how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent!”
In the same way, Barth is after a deep grasp of the Gospel’s devastating and renewing power in his own day. The Gospel destroys human caricatures of God along with all sorts of idols and idolatries. His specific target is early 20th-century “enlightened” European cultural pretensions, including the church’s domestication of what passes for “Christianity.”
It’s this dialectic of devastation and renewal that is so powerful. It seems to me that this is precisely what constitutes serious Christian proclamation.
The Gospel—because it is the Gospel of the God who is the Father of Jesus—exposes and devastates, but only in order to redeem, renew, and reclaim.