Friday, February 16, 2007

Church Dogmatics, I.I.3

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

The Doctrine of the Word of God
Chapter I: The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics
Section 3: Church Proclamation as the Material of Dogmatics

"Talk about God in the Church seeks to be proclamation to the extent that in the form of preaching and sacrament it is directed to man with the claim and expectation that in accordance with its commission it has to speak to him the Word of God to be heard in faith. Inasmuch as it is a human word in spite of this claim and expectation, it is the material of dogmatics, i.e., of the investigation of its responsibility as measured by the Word of God which it seeks to proclaim."

Talk about God and Church Proclamation

Proclamation is specifically an activity of the Church, but is also only one particular activity. It is one kind of talk about God, but not the only kind. Barth also helpfully deals with the worry that all talk is really talk about God (which, he says, it perhaps ought to be, and might well be whatever we do): such a perspective is possible from the perspective of glory, but not for fallen human beings.

Church talk about God which is not proclamation includes talk which "is addressed by man to God", and thus excised from the realm of proclamation is the entire content of hymns, prayers, and creeds. Moreover, talk based on addressing social needs or educating children is not proclamation. And finally, theology "as such" is not proclamation. (This is odd, given that theology includes proclamation according to the first section of the Introduction; perhaps we should read here "dogmatics" or place some special emphasis on the "as such".) The point is not to devalue these things, ostensibly, but simply to identify just what proclamation is by distinguishing it from other sorts of talk about God in the Church.

After some general descriptions then of proclamation, which make it what one might have called "prophecy": that is, speaking God's words to people, with the intention of doing so and as such. God is not confined to proclamation; God can and perhaps does speak to us in many other ways, but we are not therefore called to take up those ways in attempts to speak God's words. This is because God's word is spoken by human beings only in response to a commission from God to do so. So we certainly can hear the Word of God in experiences of worship, but we do not have a commission to pursue worship as proclamation.

Now this is odd, and it is perhaps only plausible in virtue of what follows, which is a dramatic and unsurprising reduction of proclamation to a very narrow category of activity. We surely do have a commission to worship, and it is extremely hard to see worship, with all of its words about God, the practice of the church in using it as a theological authority ("the law of prayer establishes the law of belief"), and that it is surely part of the commission of those so commissioned to offer prayers—complete with theological content. The point seems to be the grammatical person of the pronouns: in a prayer, God is addressed as "you", and therefore it's not proclamation. (One wonders, then why creeds are not proclamation. Of course the answer is because Barth has his thumb on the scale: creeds must not be allowed to have authority, and so despite their grammar and history, they are not proclamation.) The conviction that prayer is, in fact, the activity of the Holy Spirit within us, should put to rest the "addressed by man to God" claim for such things.

The list of what is allowed as proclamation then is this: preaching and sacrament. The former is specifically limited to homiletic exposition of texts of Scripture. Now without at all diminishing the importance of this activity, why must it be present in every service of worship? Barth cites approvingly the sentiments of his Reformed forebears who attacked ever reading the Scriptures in public worship without attaching a homily to them.

It seems rather as if a rabbit has been pulled from a hat. One must reach the Reformed conclusion that the entire purpose of services of worship is preaching and sacrament (and that a minister is, as the Presbyterian Church has it, a "minister of the word and sacrament"). And so we get there by first, excluding the cognitive and proclamatory content of every other element of worship, on the basis that it is "addressed by man to God" rather than the other way round. The result is a rather disturbing dualism. The possibility that a prayer is in its primary content addressed by the community to God (not just "man", ambiguously singular), and then secondarily by some in the community to others in community, is one which is excluded. Because such an act is not primarily addressed to human beings, but only secondarily, Barth draws the conclusion that it is not addressed to human beings at all.

So many rabbits are being pulled out of so many hats, that we cannot help but try to find the real reason for limiting proclamation to preaching and sacrament. The short answer is, I submit, this. We must find a way to confine proclamation to the individual preacher, whose words owe nothing to any human authority. The argument is driven entirely by its conclusion: we must find that the Word of God is transmitted by preaching and Scripture and, in the ordinary covenanted course of things, by nothing else whatsoever.

We must arrive at that conclusion because thus we can exclude the Modernists (who want to say that God speaks in an ordinary and covenanted way through reason and emotion too) and the Roman Catholics (who want to say that God speaks as well through the traditions and prayers and doctrinal history of the church).

We will, then, find that here is being layed the groundwork for the polemic against the Modernists and the Roman Catholics, but also that no argument whatsoever is being laid to support that polemic. What is here is not a sufficient argument, it's a rabbit out of a hat. It was pulled out this way and not some other way, precisely so that we would be able to make the "necessary" polemic when we get to that point. So we must not be tricked into thinking that what is, in fact, a wildly circular assertion is actually an argument, and we must consider that, when all is said and done, nothing has been done to effectively limit the commissioned and covenanted transmission of the Word of God to only preaching, the Scripture that preaching necessarily uses, and sacrament.

Dogmatics and Church Proclamation

Proclamation is again ratcheted up to the highest degree; here it is the Church's "most proper responsibility"; it is "the one thing needful"; it is "the service of God in the supreme sense of the term". Well, we know what Barth thinks of proclamation! But we cannot allow this to stand; the argument, such as it was, for limiting proclamation to preaching was simply the grammatical point that prayers are addressed "by man to God" and not the other way round. At no point did this make it better or more central or more crucial.

Indeed, one might have thought that the Church's primary responsibility was not to be a conduit for the Word of God, but rather to respond to it. Yes, preaching is necessary for that, but as a preparation, as a servant, not as a master. Preaching has an apologetic role, it has an educative role, it has a proclamatory role; but all of this is done for the sake of what comes next. It is in prayer, not in preaching, that we approach God; heaven is constituted by unceasing prayer and not by unceasing preaching. Sacrament is, most centrally, prayer, not proclamation; while it does have a proclamatory element, it does so because it is prayer and all prayer is proclamatory.

Here, however, we are concerned with the relation of dogmatics to proclamation. On the one hand, dogmatics has the task of judging proclamation to see whether it is up to snuff. Barth situates this obligation in virtue of the extraordinary importance and value of preaching, but even once we jettison that as unargued and unsound, we can still recognize that dogmatics has a role in judging proclamation, just as it has a role in judging all the Church's activity.

Dogmatics has a second role: hearing the Church's proclamation, dogmatics considers how proclamation should proceed tomorrow. For this reason, preaching is normally "linked to the class of theologians". How wildly different this is from the catholic view that preaching is done normally by the clergy because they are, first and foremost, leaders and sacramental ministers!

The central task of this minister, for Barth, is preaching, and because preaching requires dogmatics, preachers are chosen from the ranks of theologians. Because sacrament is assimilated to proclamation, as simply a kind of enacted proclamation, it doesn't get much play here. And the links to this surprising conclusion (though hardly unexpected) are the most tenuous.

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