Friday, February 9, 2007

Church Dogmatics, Introduction.2

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

Section 2: The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics

"Prolegomena to dogmatics is our name for the introductory part of dogmatics in which our concern is to understand its particular way of knowledge."

The Necessity of Dogmatic Prolegomena

The desire to immediately start with epistemology is interesting from a philosophical perspective. We associate it with the early moderns, who were passionately interested in epistemological questions, and the need to found all else upon a clear understanding of epistemology.

Philosophers have (mostly) given this up. Not that epistemology has become unimportant (far from it!) but that it is no longer assumed that it somehow comes first. So there is this interesting thing here, right off the bat, that Barth addresses in this section "dogmatic prolegomena" which have two properties: they are introductory, and the concern is epistemological.

The question Barth addresses is confined in this first part to whether such prolegomena are necessary. He addresses the fact that much earlier dogmatics often has extremely brief or even absent prolegomena of this sort. He says that one reason often given for the need for prolegomena is a concern for relevance, or a submission to some philosophical standard, or a conviction that in the past such things were unnecessary but now they are necessary. All of this, according to Barth, is foolish.
(There is no difference to be shown between our times and previous times; dogmatics must have its own standards; apologetics is not dogmatics, and in any case, cannot be "planned".)

The actual reason that the prolegomena are necessary is that they are to address heretics, who are paradoxically recognized simultaneously as having faith, and yet a position which can only be seen as unfaith.

What Barth does not notice is that the epistemological questions are also addressed by many of the previous theologians, but not as necessarily preliminary. In other words, I can agree that a discussion of epistemology is an important part of dogmatics, but I cannot see why it must be first, and Barth seems to simply assume this, as the wording of the summary quote above indicates.

Under the heading of the heretics come two: Modernists and Roman Catholics. (Later in The Doctrine of the Word of God we find the maddening assertion that Anglicans are happily "Evangelicals", and so not heretics. Barth's ignorance about Anglicanism will perhaps come up when I comment on that.)

The Possibility of Dogmatic Prolegomena

This part's contents do not really match the heading. Actually we are concerned here with the beginning of the polemic against Modernism and Roman Catholicism. But the key to the polemic against Modernism is that it subordinates theology to other concerns, particularly secular ones, and in this gives up what theology is.

Importantly, Modernism locates the epistemological questions of theology in its being one of a genus of sciences, or of ways of knowing, or whatever; it subordinates theology to other things particulary in its epistemology. (And in this, it should be noted, is why in the first part above Barth so earnestly rejected the Modernist statements of why prolegomena are necessary.) So the Modernist says that prolegomena are possible, an explication of the basis of theological knowledge can be given, because they are just a special case of general principles that all can agree on, even those with no concern for dogmatics.

This is the central point of attack for the beginning of the polemic against Modernism, and it issues in the title of the part. (It of course also gives a parallelism with the title of the first part; Barth seems to have a great affection for nice parallel structures in writing.)

Prolegemena are there to answer heretics; the Modernists say that prolegomena can be set forth from outside the dogmatic enterprise itself: but in this they are already marking their ground. In fact, says Barth, this is the sort of statement that can only be made outside Evangelical or Roman Catholic dogmatics—but it is precisely the sort of statement we should expect from Modernist dogmatics. To accept it is already to accept Modernism.

The polemic against Roman Catholicism is very different. The criticism of Roman Catholicism here is extremely brief (one page, compared with the three and a half given to Modernism). Essentially, the problem is that Roman Catholicism takes the Incarnation too seriously. "Their presupposition is that the being of the Church, Jesus Christ, is no longer the free Lord of its existence, but that He is incorporated into the existence of the Church..." One wonders why it was all right for the free Lord to become incorporated into pale earthly flesh. The docetism that we find throughout Barth pops in right here.

The catholic faith (and here I include myself, of the anglo- variety) certainly does say that the being of the Church is Jesus Christ, or more exactly, that the Church is the body of Christ, and that Christ is its Lord. At no point does Jesus Christ cease to be the free Lord. All of the things that Barth finds so objectionable would be objectionable if they were something human beings imposed upon God. But thus so is the Incarnation itself. The Pauline theology of the Church sees the Church precisely as the extension in time of the Incarnation, and sees incorporation into the Church as incorporation into Christ. Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.

What Barth sees as human presumption would be, were it not for the fact of revelation. What Barth has done is to give an instruction to God: Thou Shalt Not Humble Thyself. It is true that for the catholic grace "becomes nature", perhaps in the sense of a "second nature", or perhaps we might say a "new creation". If we trust that Paul meant what he spoke, is not this new creation a creation, which is to say, a thing which works according to principles, and not just divine whim? When we proclaim Christ crucified, we proclaim a God who deigns to humble himself for our sakes. In this we do not magnify ourselves, but the grace of God. (More Pauline imagery!)

Perhaps this is clearest when Barth begins painting the Evangelical position, in which the opposition to Roman Catholicism is marked by a rejection "of the presupposition of a constantly available absorption of the being of the Church into a creaturely form, into a 'There is'." What does he think Paul means by speaking of a new creation, if not, well, a new creaturely form?

So, the Evangelical position is marked out thus, after the opening salvos of the polemics have been made. Agreement is made with Roman Catholicism that the prolegomena to dogmatics can only exist within dogmatics itself. The prolegomena are therefore concerned with the Word of God (hence the title of this first volume).

Barth here then expands on the older Protestant tradition, which centered its polemic on claims about the Bible, and he takes the Word of God as a category, into which the theology of the Bible will be a part. Now a problem here is that the older Protestant polemic was based upon three untruths at this point, and the attentive reader will want to see if Barth bothers with these problems.

The first problem is that the catholic position, in which Scripture arose within the Church as a part of the activity of the Church, is denied without any corresponding account of where Scripture comes from and the basis of its authority.

The second problem is that the Protestant polemic includes an accusation that the catholics do not obey Scripture, and this is said such as to imply that the catholics are acting in wildly bad faith. Since the catholic position is not to place tradition "above" Scripture, this was never a just attack. Moreover, sometimes it is painfully absurd: Luther, for example, condemns monasticism as a violation of the commandment to marry; and yet, does not Paul express a wish that all would be single as he is?

The third problem is that the Church existed, fully and completely as the Church, before the New Testament existed. Any account of the Church which makes the existence of Scripture an absolute necessity for the Church is therefore wildly inattentive to historical reality; if it makes it only a necessity now but not then, we are owed an explanation of how and when the change occurred.

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