Responding to the Church Dogmatics (I.1.)

Introduction—§1. The Task of Dogmatics

This is Barth’s first statement: “As a theological discipline, dogmatics is the scientific test to which the Christian Church puts herself regarding the language about God which is peculiar to her” (1).

I find myself attracted to what I see being his main point, that to do “dogmatics” is to focus on, as Christians, understanding and accountability with regard to the ways we think about God (I assume here by “God” we should be thinking of all of reality in light of our convictions about God). That is, we should be focusing on everything dogmatics has to do with in relation to our core convictions, the central commitments we make, the most fundamental beliefs we have about the nature of reality and God’s place in this reality.

However, there is already a big question, one I expect to be troubled by throughout Barth’s opus. That is his use of the singular “Church.” It is unclear to me what he means by “Church”—or, if he means something along the lines of what I expect he means (i.e., the formal organized structures—Protestant, Catholic, and [presumably, though rarely if ever named] Orthodox—that make up official Christianity though he probably has an additional dimension as well), whether it is truthful or meaningful in just about any sense to think of this in the singular.

Obviously, “Church” is Barth’s central human category. As an Anabaptist, I both affirm the central importance of ecclesiology for all theology/”dogmatics” (which is why Church could be an appropriate and crucial qualifier for “dogmatics”) and question whether it is helpful for theology that would be true to Jesus to be linked so closely to the “formal organized structures.” But we will have to see how Barth unpacks his sense of “Church.”

Barth lays out right away what constitutes the Church’s “special action as a community”: “in proclamation by preaching and administration of the Sacrament, in worship, in instruction, in her mission work within and without the Church, including loving activity among the sick, the weak, and those in jeopardy” (1).

There is much to appreciate in this quick summary. However, in what is to come in the chapters that immediately follow (and I suspect throughout) is an emphasis on the first half of this summary, especially “proclamation,” and very little on “mission work…, including loving activity.” This seems about opposite of the biblical emphasis.

I do appreciate that Barth from the start affirms a critical function for theology: “She recognizes and undertakes, as an active Church, a further human task, the task of criticizing and revising her language about God” (2). He seems to have a healthy sense that theology has a strong human component that renders it provision and needing constant updating. There seems present here an affirmation of a sense of humility about the task of theology and also a sense that doctrines should never be seen as set in concrete.

Also, here at the very beginning, Barth makes a strong statement about theology as christocentric: “The criterion of Christian language, in past and future as well as at the present time, is the essence of the Church, which is Jesus Christ, God in His gracious approach to man in revelation and reconciliation. Has Christian language its source in Him? Does it lead to Him? Does it conform to Him?” (3)

This statement points to what will be my central concern in reading Barth. I agree with what he seems to say here: All theology/”dogmatics”/”Christian language” ultimately must be judged in relation to how it coheres (or not) with Jesus Christ. But how rigorous will Barth be in following this path? And what does he mean by “Jesus Christ” here? What I would expect someone who truly wants to adhere to this criterion to do is from the beginning pay close attention to the biblical story as it culminates in Jesus’ life and teaching—which would include most centrally identifying and paying close attention to the priorities about the life of faith that characterized Jesus’ own life in the context of the larger story of biblical Israel of which he played such a central part.

I have my doubts about how serious Barth will actually be about this criterion for theology. One troubling clue already is his emphasis on Jesus and “reconciliation” which may (or may not) be a pointer toward making “Jesus as Savior” the preoccupation in a way that marginalizes Jesus as model, teacher, and bringing of social transformation.

One response to “Responding to the Church Dogmatics (I.1.)

  1. Dan Umbel

    As I understand Barth, Ted, he sees himself as speaking to all those who call themselves Christian. Although his theology is clearly Reformed, he is not wanting to be simply an “in house” theologian speaking only to fellow Reformed thinkers. His understanding of proclamation and witness is that the theologian speaks from their own limitations but always speaks to the total christian community and the world at large.

    Barth is more than critical of the official church structures, however. In fact, many critique him for being too critical and for having a poor sense of the need for institutions.

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