Dogmatic theology and the Church Dogmatics A new beginning

In significant respects, Barth had established the pattern of his future work by the time he arrived at Bonn in March 1930. Yet many claim that his book on Anselm was a new beginning. He had taught Anselm in 1926, and written of him in the Christian Dogmatics of 1927, but now he did return to him in a seminar in the summer of 1930. The issue which especially concerned him was how human reason functioned in relation to the reality of God. For Anselm, he finds, intelligere is desired by faith, and when the ratio of faith is shown, results in joy. Furthermore, "this reason, which the intelligere seeks and finds, possesses in itself not only utilitas. . . but also pulchritudo."17 So the source of the search for reason is within faith itself: believing - not a human striving toward God, but a striving into, and creaturely participation in God's mode of Being - brings the desire for intelligere. We are to think in/after (nach-denken) faith, rationally acknowledging what has occurred in faith.18 In this book on Anselm, Barth extends his earlier work into the central issues of cognition and the heartlands of philosophy.

Meanwhile, he was turning away from his previous attempt - in Die christliche Dogmatik - to a new project, the Church Dogmatics. Why? It seems a familiar predicament: in the attempt to complete the former, the latter simply took shape; and it was not the same project! And as the new work developed, it assumed massive proportions, in which there were not only continuities but also transformations. The project - integrating scripture, historical theology, dogmatics, and ethics - occupied

Barth for the remainder of his life, and even then was never completed.

Approaching the Church Dogmatics

Before we look more closely at the content of the Church Dogmatics, we need to notice some of its distinctive features.

1 The first is the manner of its presentation. Each part-volume is presented in three levels, (a) dogmatic theses or propositions (printed in bold type), (b) dogmatic presentation (in ordinary type), and (c) "interposed sections in small print" where attention is given to "biblico-theological presuppositions and the historico-dogmatic and polemical relations of my statements."19 In practice, the levels are not so easily separated: understanding the first requires consideration of the second, and thorough attention calls the reader to engage with the third. For students of scripture and historical doctrine, the last is the most concrete and interesting of all, but relegating these to small print tends to favor dogmatic statements, and to deemphasize them.

2 It is very long and comprehensive, and the text is - as some have said - like "iron." As such, it tends to "haunt and comfort the rest of us" (Hans Frei). Despite what is often said, that Barth uses too many words and talks around topics, his prose is terse and demands the reader's full concentration.

3 Despite its division into four major doctrines - the Word of God, God, Creation, and Reconciliation (one on Redemption was never written) - the Church Dogmatics is a continuous whole; the chapters are consecutively numbered throughout (I to XVI). Later ones trace what is implicit in earlier ones, but also significantly enlarge - and sometimes change the balance of - what precedes. Volume 4, for example, changes the exclusive preoccupation with deity in the earlier volumes for greater concern for the humanity of Jesus in God's reconciling work.20

4 It maintains remarkable pungency: it is marked by a strong sense of the contingency of everything on the action of God, yet it also finds the fullest coherence in what God does. Two recurring notions support this contingency:21 (a) the "actualism" of God's acting to be God, as God in active and actual relatedness in himself and with man; God is sovereign in his freedom and love, both within himself and for humanity, as distinct from more "fixed" conceptions describing these things as "states" of being or relation, whether for God or for human beings; and (b) the "particularity" of proclamation, whose "content must be found each time in the middle space between the particular text in the context of the whole Bible and the particular situation of the changing moment."22

5 In its unity, it is "richly dynamic, endlessly surprising, and deeply mysterious.23 Not only does Barth - like his beloved Mozart - love thematic interplay, he also concentrates on particular themes, bringing them elegantly into new combinations and contrapositions "within an ever forward spiraling theological whole."24 Although, as we will see, there is only one entrance point, that allows us to be led into everything. It is the task of theology, not to employ systematization as such, but "to describe as carefully as possible, from many different angles, the network of interconnections which constitute the great crystal in its totality."

6 It is coherent: (a) although dependent on God's act, theological language is used analogically; it refers to its object reliably and self-involvingly, with sufficient certainty, in a use which is neither literal nor expressive, and which - in broader contexts like history - forms narrative and legend, as distinct from fact or myth; (b) as befits "scientific theology," God's self-relation in God's relation to the creature is "objective reality" which makes knowledge available in faith, the one through the other, outside of which there is only "unreality"; and (c) God's encounter with humanity as mediated by Jesus Christ is personal, which binds Jesus deeply to the subjectivity of human beings, incorporating them in him and making it possible for them to share in the intimacy of the triune God.

7 Both pungency and coherence appear in the patterns which operate in the Church Dogmatics. (a) There are genuine knowledge and grounds for belief, but they derive from faith which rests on the grace of God. (b) At another -ontological - level, there is a repeated asking of what are the operative conditions for what is given to faith: what makes this actuality actual? It is, Barth says, not necessarily the case, but is made the case - actualized - by God, ultimately because of the freedom by which God chose to be this way and not another: "all actualities ultimately find their possibility (however variously) as grounded in that freedom."25 (c) Here, it seems, is a dialectic, in which what is "natural" is distinct from - even opposed to - what is "God's," but one transcended by the free grace of God giving the condition for the one to be actually related to the other. "Nature" and "grace" are in dialectical opposition, but this opposition is surpassed by a relation of the two actualized by the triune God.

The logic of dogmatics

From the outset, Barth focuses not on humanity or the church as such but on what is deemed central to church life: proclamation. The purpose is to identify the operative condition by which it is proclamation (or the church is the church) as distinct from something else, that is the Word of God as attested in the preached, written, and revealed Word of God. Next, we find that the Word of God thus found has its operative condition in that it is God's actual speech to humanity; and the operative condition for that is then also found, etc. This "chain" of "operative conditions" is at the heart of this Dogmatics. Dogmatics, as a theological science distinct from testimony and service, is to be the self-examination of the church to find whether, at each level of assertion, its operative condition is in place. To put it differently, Dogmatics is to examine the agreement of human speech or concept with its operative condition: uncovering truth as the agreement of the two is the task of theology. But if the operative condition for human speech is other than Word of God/God's Speech/God's Self-Revelation/etc. - as appropriate to the level of examination -then whatever is said is simply human speech or concept and, from a theological viewpoint, untrue.

Here we begin to see the pattern of the Church Dogmatics as a whole. It is, it seems, a chain of dialectical unities: if it is to be more than human practice or concept, the "lower" in each case must rest on the operative condition of the "higher,"

without which it falls out of its relation to God into the kind of "distance" of which Barth spoke so passionately in his commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans. But if it does indeed rest on the operative condition thus identified, it is indeed the speaking of God, the God who is free to be - and to reveal himself in - Jesus Christ. With this in mind, we need to trace the chain of connections in the subject-matter of the different volumes in the Church Dogmatics.

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