So I’ve embarked on a long journey through the 14 volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It’s a seven-year plan actually, being led by J. R. Daniel Kirk. I can’t promise that I’ll post every week (actually, I can promise that I won’t!), but I’ll do what I can. Here are my reflections on week one (CD I.I, pp 1-24).
In this opening section Barth takes up the question of what (dogmatic) theology actually is, and here is how I would summarize his answer: Theology is human words about God that must be spoken as human words about God. Dogmatic theology is the branch in which the church self-examines it’s own words about God to see whether they meet the one standard to which they are called: God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Dogmatic theology differs from other forms of theology, notably practical and exegetical theology. About the latter he writes, “Dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets” (16).
Let me back up to my definition and break it down piece by piece: human words about God that must be spoken as human words about God. The definition really starts with words about God, for that is what theology most basically is. But immediately the question arises as to who in the world could presume to speak such words. Barth’s response to this is, to put it crudely, “Yup that’s pretty ridiculous alright, but it must nevertheless be done.” So the words about God that make up theology are human words, and as such thorough humility is appropriate to say the least. “We always seem to be handling an intractable object with inadequate means” (23). But these words are words that must be spoken, for God has revealed. Jesus Christ happened, and therefore we must speak, humanly though we inescapably do so. These two sides — inadequacy and necessity — explain what he means when he says, “Dogmatics must always be undertaken as an act of penitence and obedience” (22).
And these words about God that must be spoken must be spoken in a specific way — that is, as human words about God. Dogmatic theology is answerable to itself — that is, its own canons and not to any others. Barth spends much of these pages reflecting on whether theology is a science, and there are ways in which it is and ways in which it is not. It is not if by science one means that which is humanly observable, repeatable, etc. This kind of science throws standards upon theology by which theology is not meant to be measured, questions it is not meant to answer. Theology is not one link in the great chain that is humanity’s attempt to “figure it all out”; it is not one piece of the pie chart of human knowledge, if you will. But it is science in the sense that it is ordered thought which is answerable to a measure particular to itself — that is, the church’s essential being or Jesus Christ as the decisive revelation of God.
The main thing I haven’t mentioned is that Barth makes much of the church speaking to the church. This is reflected publicly in his change of the multi-volume project’s title from Christian Dogmatics to Church Dogmatics. Dogmatics is an internal affair in that it is the church’s self-examination to see if its thought accords with its canon (once again, Jesus Christ or in another apparent Barthian favorite, “the being of the church”). Maybe I should adjust my summary just a tiny bit: human words about this God that must be spoken as human words about this God. Or to make it less cumbersome, human words about this God that must be spoken as such.