Thursday, February 25, 2010

Week One of the Church Dogmatics.

Disclaimer: This blog will be a stream of consciousness. Almost a diary of sorts. Please don't expect anything evenly remotely intelligent.

This week was the beginning. It was when the class was assigned to start reading the Church Dogmatics. After 3 books and multiple Barth essays later (in just 4 weeks), you think I'd be prepared for such a task. However, it has been painful. I have come to adore the fact that Barth repeats himself over and over and over again. For simple minds like myself, this is really helpful. He puts this dot on the page and takes you in this circle to explain the dot but eventually comes back to the original dot and also restates it in a different way. The part that makes me nauseous is the circular journey moving away from and back toward the original dot. But I see what he does it. This reading is sanctifying. Really, Barth loves the Lord. Everything that he writes is dependent upon the view that this is GOD we are talking about. This is GOD. The God who dwells in inapproachable light. That truth is intertwined in every sentence, phrase, and word. It makes me emotional at times, and at times it leads me to sit and worship. I never knew my mind could worship so deeply. This reading is sanctifying.

Sometimes I feel like I need to hide my excitement about Barth. I realize he isn't the most popular theologian in evangelicalism and the individuals who seem to adore him the most are also caught up in the post-liberal world of theology that couldn't be any less interesting to me. I want to take the Scriptures very seriously. I want to be faithful to the text and seek sound exegesis. However, I also want to go beyond that and talk about the implications, the conclusions, the logical connections, the synthetic statements that can be made about this God we worship in evangelicalism that sheer biblical exegesis can't offer. I need to zoom out from the page, from the one thread, to see the grand narrative, the whole beautiful tapestry of God's grace. I want the whole shabang! But that doesn't always sit well with people. Most think that if you go that far from the particular sentence in Scripture, you miss the trees for the forest. And if you go too far up, you won't even be able to see the page any longer. But can't you somehow take the page with you as you soar on the wings of synthesis?

Most would assume I'm pretty bias when it comes to Barth. Most people hear how I think he is cute (which is so true, ah, he is so endearing!) or how I rave about the beauty of his words. Most people read me quote him on facebook followed by a continual (!!!!!) and they roll their eyes and assume I have no objectivity whatsoever when it comes to this great theologian. They assume I can't see any of his faults, errors, or lack of objectivity. The reason I rarely ever discuss my issues with Barth is that I fear most people won't really take Barth on his own terms. We hear snippets about theologians (Augustine was obsessed with sex, Luther hated Jews, Calvin wanted everyone to burn in hell, etc.) and then we believe that we know exactly what they believe and exactly what they are going to say based on these small sound bites without bothering to read the theologians on their own terms. I will say that I am more guilty of this more than anyone else - especially when it comes to N.T. Wright. However, I will admit that if you do systematics enough, you can guess what a theologian will say based upon a particular doctrine. For example, I could make several prophetic statements about Wright's view of the law and justification based upon his theory of the atonement. And in some parts he was more nuanced than I expected but in most ways, he was right on point. Nothing is done in part, it is totally in unison with the whole. But I know that most people aren't talking about this when they make snide comments about Barth. I could only wish or pray for such. Most people hear he doesn't think Scripture is the Word of God - without fleshing out what that statement even truly means, mind you! - and therefore, he isn't evangelical in the modern American sense of the word so he can say nothing to me of value. Only a few public evangelicals have said anything nearly as bold and explicit as what I just outlined. But if people were honest, that is what they think. And you know, I can't blame them. So much of our theology is just another idol to comfort us in light of the reality that we have no control over anything.

But anyhow, rant! Sorry. I have issues with Barth. To be honest, I continually fear that he is a horrible exegete (see the Epistle to the Romans - I honestly forgot at one point that he was talking about the book of Romans). More, I fear he doesn't even have the same desire that most evangelicals do to be utterly faithful to the text. I fear he is sheerly a product of his time period, totally in reaction to the liberal methodology that nearly saw the death of Christianity in the 19th century. I see this in his writings on the German Church struggle - why wasn't he more outspoken against the Aryan doctrines of the German Church in 1932 to 1934? Why didn't he rebuke them openly and have the courage to shut down such antibiblical ideas? Why was he always writing more about his theological agenda than the most urgent issue at hand? Granted, he wrote those articles in 1932-1934, not 1945. As my professor stated, it is easy to point the finger in hindsight. But still, I expected more of such a brilliant mind.

And then we have those forbidden doctrines - universal election, the doctrine of the Trinity before Scripture, the absolute no to natural theology, the focus upon Christ to a default. I wonder if this is just a theological agenda and not a true grappling with the text. Is he asking the right questions? Is he asking questions that are fair of the text? Is he taking the historical settings of and influences upon the text seriously? Does he, as a theologian, have this duty in the first place? Is he wrongfully presupposing ideas about God? about methodology? about the task of theology?

Despite the sheer beauty found in his pages, these fears linger. Perhaps I'll be able to let them go so I can enjoy the experience.


William of Baskerville said...

Great start on this blog. Please don't forget that I may not always answer immediately, but that I'm available to discuss Barth with you. In case you've forgotten, the subtitle of my blog is "From Recherche a la temps perdu to Kirchliche Dogmatik." :)

Marc said...


I have a quick question. Regarding one of Barth's "forbidden doctrines" (as you cleverly called them), did he maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity was somehow available prior to or independently of Scripture? If so, how did he justify this interesting claim?

And I must register my agreement with William of Baskerville: great start indeed.


-- Marc

Kait Dugan said...


Barth doesn't believe, from what I have read, that the doctrine of the Trinity exists independently of Scripture. When Barth ordered the doctrines within his Church Dogmatics, he placed the doctrine of the Trinity before the doctrine of Holy Scripture. If you open up any systematic or dogmatic theology text, you will mostly find that the doctrine of Scripture comes before the doctrine of the Trinity in the table of contents. Reversing the order was was an intentional, radical, and strategic move for Barth. He believed that theology was for the Church, by the Church. As such, theology done in the Church is done in hindsight after conversion. Christians know that the Trinity exists outside of time and space and eternally existed before the Scriptures. Furthermore, the ultimate self-revelation of God came via the Incarnation of the eternal living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Thus, it would be absurd to Barth to start the discussion of theology from the starting place of anything else but with the being of God. While this ordering of the doctrines is not essential (at least for me) it seems wise as Barth knew that place the doctrine Trinity before the doctrine of Scripture impacts the ethos of the entire theological enterprise since the reversing of this order tends to turn theology into apologetics (we must justify the revelation of God before we can talk about God ... our epistemology isn't based upon one of faith but rather a rational justification of God's revelation before proceeding).

As far as I can tell, that is what Barth would say. If you read it different, by all means, please offer helpful corrections!

Marc said...


Thanks for helping me with my question. I certainly don't have any corrections to submit at this time, but I appreciate the invitation. =)

. . . Barth knew that place the doctrine Trinity before the doctrine of Scripture impacts the ethos of the entire theological enterprise since the reversing of this order tends to turn theology into apologetics (we must justify the revelation of God before we can talk about God ... our epistemology isn't based upon one of faith but rather a rational justification of God's revelation before proceeding).

Since Barth held that acquiring knowledge of God apart from Scripture (or special revelation) is impossible, and since Scripture contains the story of the Incarnation, it seems to me that justifying (in some sense) the revelation of God prior to speaking of God would be an indispensable element of Barth's theological enterprise. That is, it seems necessary to first answer the question, "Why this text?" Barth appears to have made Scripture logically/conceptually/explanatorily prior to obtaining knowledge of God. So, without first establishing Scripture (in some sense), his epistemological foundations for theology are ostensibly nonexistent. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding Barth.

What do you think Barth would say about this (admittedly strange) thought experiment?

Suppose, during the time of Jesus' ministry, there was a person who followed Jesus virtually everywhere and diligently made notes about nearly everything Jesus did and taught. Whenever this person had an opportunity, he would return home to be with and care for his ailing wife. Due to her illness, she was unable to leave their home. But whenever her husband would return, she would listen intently as he told her story after story about this fascinating Jewish teacher. After Jesus' resurrection, the man made his way home as quickly as possible to tell his wife what had transpired. Throughout the remainder of their lives, they discussed the events surrounding Jesus' ministry numerous times. Suppose, finally, several years later, that one of their great grandchildren found her great grandfather's notes and began reading them. This was the first time she had heard or read anything of these remarkable stories.

Would Barth be inclined to think that the great granddaughter possessed theological knowledge in general or knowledge of God in particular?


-- Marc

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