Sunday, December 2, 2018

Barth's Dogmatics, §1, the Task of Dogmatics

It's the first Sunday of Advent!

For the past few years, I’ve used this blog as a platform for some year-long studies--often on Advent's first Sunday--undertaken as a spiritual discipline. One year I surveyed all of Bach’s sacred cantatas on the church days for which they were written; I studied saints of the church on or near their feast days; last year I studied all the books of the Bible. This last project became so intensive—filling over 200 pages when assembled---that I ended up neglecting this blog for a few months fter I finally finished the New Testament.

But beginning with this first Sunday of Advent and continuing through 2019, Lord willing, I want to take notes on Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. My folks purchased the whole English-language set for me forty years ago. Subsequently I wrote my doctoral dissertation on aspects of the Dogmatics, publishing it in 1994. As things turned out, my teaching career took different directions and I never taught Barth. But I continued to study the books off and on over the years, and Barth’s theology informed ways that I thought about the Bible as I wrote religious curriculum.

Now, I’d like to think through the Dogmatics as the year’s “spiritual project.” Perhaps I'll use these notes eventually to design a course on Barth. Studying his magnum opus carries a nostalgic value for me; I’ve had this set---and loved Barth’s theology---since college, when I was so excited about the prospect of divinity school and then doctoral work.

The Dogmatics was conceived to have five volumes:

The doctrine of the Word of God
The doctrine of God
The doctrine of Creation
The doctrine of Reconciliation
The doctrine of Redemption.

Barth was able to complete most of the doctrine of reconciliation, though leaving the fourth part unfinished. Volumes 1 and 2 have two parts (two large books), and Volumes 3 and 4 have four parts (four books for Vol. 3 and six books for Vol. 4).

Altogether, there are 74 paragraphs (i.e., sections), including the unnumbered final portion (the fragment Vol. 4 Part 4) that concerns Christian baptism. The first volume was published in 1932 and the last in 1967. Barth’s assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum was indispensable for the progress of the Dogmatics.

During this project, I’ll take notes on the Dogmatics by paragraphs. Although there are many books about Barth's theology, one of my favorites is an older one: Arnold B. Come’s An Introduction to Barth’s Dogmatics for Preachers (Westminster Press, 1963). Come provides not only a nice discussion of the set but also a “quick tour.”

Here we go!

Paragraph 1 is “The Task of Dogmatics”: “As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God.”

In “The Church, Theology, Science” (I/1, 3-11) theology is the work of the church, and because it is a human endeavor it is fallible, but is measured by the self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ. Theology is a science, independent of other sciences, which does not have to submit to standards valid in other sciences. But theology as a science is in solidarity with other sciences while pursuing its own special responsibility.

Barth family grave in Basel

In “Dogmatics as an Enquiry” (pp. 11-17), dogmatics as an enquiry carries the assumption that the content of Christian talk about God can be known. This talk must conform to the being of the Church, and thus to Jesus Christ. But that talk not only can be known, but must be known, because this talk is an act of obedience to the Lord. Because God is free, church dogma can never be considered infallible in the Roman Catholic sense, for God alone as disclosed in Christ is the truth of the church.

In “Dogmatics as an Act of Faith” (pp. 17-24), dogmatics is impossible to carry out without faith—without listening to and being obedient to Christ. As faith, regeneration, and conversion are part of the Christian experience, theology will be part of the calling of the church and the grace given to the theologian. Penitence and obedience and prayer are always part of dogmatics—but that fact, in turn, does make theology special among the sciences.

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