The Task of Dogmatics [Blogging through Barth, part 2]

I have been thinking a lot about what task the theologian should be pursuing. Does a theologian have a place today? If so, what is it exactly? While these thoughts will arise somewhat, I am more concerned with what Barth has to say here. He opens his Church Dogmatics with this exact discussion.

Barth has three points about the task of dogmatics, so we will run through them

1. The Church, Theology, Science

Here Barth is not worried about discussing the challenges of Darwinism, the age of the earth, or whatever, but whether we should call theology/dogmatics a “science,” and some related issues.

“Theology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors. Nor does it control a basis of knowledge which might not find actualisation in other sciences. Nor does it know an object of enquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences.” (5, I.1)

I think there might be a lot of interesting background here like Barth’s Calvinism, maybe an influence from Abraham Kuyper, etc., but the main point I find interesting. Namely, it is not that theology has some special place if all things go right, for all of creation is theological in nature. The heavens declare the glory of God and so should sociology, philosophy, biology, etc. But since these disciplines are not pursued as they should be, theology has a place in the world. Thus, “[t]heology as a special science, like the theology of the service of God as special Christian utterance, can be justified only as a relative and factual necessity.” (5-6, I.1) Moreover, “It [theology] cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos.” (10, I.1)

He goes on to discuss the purpose of theology more specifically:

“Its task, not in fact discharged by other sciences, is that of the criticism and correction of talk about God according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle. Theology is the science which finally sets itself this task, and this task alone, subordinating to this task all other possible tasks in the human search for truth.” (6, I.1)

So the task of theology, then, is to make sure the Church’s talk about God is accurate. The phase “according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle” is important because it shows an important theme in Barth that arises in connection with calling dogmatics/theology “science.” Namely:

“If theology allows itself to be called, or calls itself, a science, it cannot in so doing accept the obligation of submission to standards valid for other sciences…The only way which theology has of proving its scientific character is to devote itself to the task of knowledge as determined by its actual theme and thus to show what it means by true science.” (11, I.1)

The point is an important one for Barth: theology should not be behold to any standard outside of the task to which it is called. Theology’s job is not to measure up to how physicists, philosophers, or musicians go about things, but in faithfulness to its job of correcting the Church’s speech about God.

Finally, as to calling theology a science, Barth has three practical reasons for doing so: (1) it brings itself into line by recognizing its solidarity with other sciences, (2) it makes “a necessary protest against a general conception of science which is admittedly pagan,” and (3) theology “shows that it does not take the heathenism of their understanding seriously enough to separate itself under another name, but that it reckons them as part of the Church in spite of their refusal of the theological task and their adoption of a concept of science which is so intolerable to theology.” (12, I.1)

2. Dogmatics as an Enquiry

“The task of dogmatics, therefore, is not simply to combine, repeat and transcribe a number of truths of revelation which are already at hand, which have been expressed once and for all, and the wording and meaning of which are authentically defined…Nor can it ever be the real concern of dogmatics merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible…Hence 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.” (15-16, I.1)

Even if one does not agree with Barth’s particular understanding of this, I think it is an important part because we should always be recontextualizing the Christian faith. Failing to contextualize does not lead to a faithful understanding and living out of the faith, it merely takes one particular cultural understanding as transcultural and thereby imposes it in a foreign historical situation thereby entailing a lack of faithful understanding and living.

So dogmatics as an enquiry is not simply mining the text for what it says, but learning what to say today in light of what has been said.

3. Dogmatics as an Act of Faith

Barth argues that “dogmatics is quite impossible except as an act of faith, in the determination of human action by listening to Jesus Christ and obedience to Him.” (17, I.1) This is because it is only by faith that one can properly understand human action in relation to the Church by God’s revelation and reconciliation. To quote Barth, “there is no possibility of dogmatics at all outside the Church.” (ibid.)


So that’s a summary of Barth’s understanding of the task of dogmatics. I found his discussion really interesting. It intersected with my own thoughts on quite a few points. I am finding reading Barth to be very enjoyable and worthwhile.


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