Sunday, February 4, 2007

Church Dogmatics, Introduction.1

Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics

Section 1: The Task of Dogmatics

"As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God."

Barth unpacks this under three headings First on on the role of dogmatics in the church as a particular sort of theology, and whether dogmatics is a science, then on dogmatics as that process of self-examination, of enquiry, and finally on dogmatics as an act of faith.

Barth situations, it seems, dogmatics as one kind of theology. The other two kinds are talk about God in "the action of the individual believer" and then the "specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and...sacraments, in worship, in...mission."

From an Anglican perspective this is interesting; we are used to talking liturgy as "primary theology" and then the other stuff as "secondary theology". The fellowship and mission, and individual action, we would tend to perhaps identify as a tertiary theology; as meaningful but not done for the purpose of conveying meaning.

But the words in worship (which we would not separate off from preaching and sacraments as Barth seems to) are primary for us. And by primary, we usually mean that the task of secondary theology is to unpack their meaning for us; to reflect upon them. There is a two-way street, of course: when writing the liturgy, the church consults, among other things, dogmatics, and there are elements of the liturgy (such as the creed) which have their origins directly, though only partly, in polemical dogmatics. (The creeds originate in baptismal liturgy, not the other way round.)

This creates a fundamentally different orientation for dogmatics than Barth. Where we see dogmatics as having its central function in commenting on and enriching and explaining, and (maybe) relating to this or that current philosophical concern, Barth sees dogmatics as, at the outset, exercising a critical judgment over the other forms of theology.

It is not that the liturgy is infallible, but the general orientation among us seems to be to learn from the liturgy, rather than to teach to it. Dogmatics then is judged by its conformity with the liturgy, in the normal course of events, and not the other way round. The "normal course of events" is reversed when the it becomes clear that a given liturgical practice cannot be given a defense or an understanding in dogmatics, and then it is to dogmatics that we turn in considering revision of the liturgy. But then, very quickly, the normal course returns, and the (now revised) liturgy once again assumes its pride of place.

This dynamic can be seen in the 16th century Anglican reformation. The task of liturgical revision was thrust into the hands of people who found the preceding Latin liturgy dogmatically indefensible, and the Book of Common Prayer was born. But immediately the BCP became the doctrinal standard of the church. The private opinions of Cranmer are irrelevant; the Books of Homilies quickly fell into disuse, and the XXXIX Articles began to be judged in the terms of the BCP rather than the other way around.

We may still follow the course of Barthian dogmatics, even if we refuse to grant it its pretended status as the judge of what is (for us) primary theology—it can still function well as an explanation of that theology, even if such was not its intent.

I find then that I agree with Barth's explanations of the relationship of theology to conceptions of science, which can be summed up, I think, as saying that theology is a science in that we will not cede that term away, but neither we will allow the importation of a foreign conception of what a science must do or how it must proceed.

Under his second heading Barth explores the presuppositions necessary for dogmatics. It then will not be the task of dogmatics to defend these presuppositions; we simply note them and the cautions they entail. The task of defense is reserved, presumably, to apologetics. The first presupposition is that it is possible to understand the true content of Christian talk about God; the second is that it is necessary. Strictly speaking, only the possibility is a necessary presupposition for dogmatics (that is, if it were impossible to understand the talk about God, then dogmatics would be impossible; but if it were merely optional to understand it, dogmatics could still proceed). So there is more lurking here under the surface.

The possibility is found in the faith that Jesus Christ is the "revealing and reconciling address of God to man". This statements helps to understand what Barth meant by the "true content" of Christian talk about God. There must be something, in philosophical terms, to "fix the reference" of the talk about God, and only in faith in the reconciling and revealing presence of Christ can we understand what our talk means or what it is about. We may thus misunderstand what we are saying, we may think we are talking about God when we are, in fact, talking about an idol of our own creation: this would fail to be "true content".

The necessity of understanding is thus clearer. Because dogmatics (for Barth) has the primary role of standing in judgment upon other talk of God, as being the way in which the Church takes seriously the need to speak responsibly about God, it cannot proceed without the presupposition that the true content Church's talk about God can be known, both because it must be known to be judged, and because it can only be judged insofar as the truth can potentially be seen.

Barth is not here claiming any kind of infallibility for dogmatics, of course, merely that this is the direction the arrows go, as it were. From an Anglican perspective, then, it seems to me that we can of course accept the presuppositional status of the possibility of knowing the true content of the Church's speech, but the necessity is not so clear.

And what undergirds this necessity, for Barth, is also a polemic against a Roman Catholic way of proceeding, in which dogmatics exists only to "combine, repeat, and transcribe a number of truths of revelation which are already to hand, which have been expressed once and for all, and the wording and meaning of which are authentically defined." All must be, for Barth, perpetually up for grabs, so that while the creeds may be "venerable" and can be guidance, they cannot control.

Now the problem is that the role of the creeds can be simultaneously authoritation and the task of dogmatics can be more than repetition, for the simple reason that the creeds do not exaust the topic. We can allow the creeds an irreplaceable status and require a theologian not to transgress outside their bounds, without thereby saying that the task of dogmatics is mere repetition.

I can only say that, at this point, Barth has not fairly represented what a truly catholic dogmatics looks like. He nods that dogmatics also cannot simply repeat what the Scriptures say, but we know what is coming: the creeds are up for grabs, and the Scriptures are not. And we will be brought back to this page when we are told that the creeds are up for grabs (because dogmatics is not just repetition, etc., etc.) and we will not be told why the Scriptures are not also up for grabs for the same reasons.

The third heading of this section addresses dogmatics "as an act of faith." All I can say here is that this is a beautiful exposition of the role of faith in the life of a theologian, that dogmatics is necessarily humble and must trust in God for any success it can have, always needing to approach God trembling and in prayer.

Index of Comments on Karl Barth


The Miner said...

Fascinating comments here. I'm going to link to your blog if you don't mind. May others benefit from your perspective.

If I may offer only a brief comment - I agree that liturgy ought to be primary over dogmatics, however I would go one step further and say (along with the OT prophets) that justice ought to take priority over liturgy (Amos 5). So we ought perhaps to move tertiary theology in the Anglican perspective to the front of the line, shape our liturgies around God's shalom as acted out, and then proceed to do dogmatics from there.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

feel free to link as you wish.

i am inclined to agree about the relative importance of praxis and praise here. one of my brothers said recently that we should perhaps spend more time (as a church) on our feet and less on our knees.

this does not produce too many changes in liturgy as liturgics has conceived it, though it may offer indictments of on-the-ground liturgical practice, as the letter of James suggests!

i think that we do quite poorly when we allow one area of Christian life to start dictating the rest, however. i do not really insist that liturgics must supervise dogmatics, but i also don't think that works of justice and mercy should supervise liturgics, and certainly not to the point of becoming a center around which our liturgy is shaped.

i think that a liturgical sensibility starts right off the bat saying that we do not start over "shaping our liturgies", any more than we start dogmatics by looking about to decide what we will take for Holy Scripture.

the liturgy is, in pretty much all its broad essentials, given. i resist nearly all claims to start instructing the liturgy by external principles.