Random Quotes 2 [Blogging through Barth, part 5]

“The doubtful thing is not where God is person, but whether we are.” (138; I.1)

“God’s faithfulness to His Church consists in His availing Himself of His freedom to come to us Himself in His Word and in His reserving to Himself the freedom to do this again and again.” (139; I.1)

“When God’s Word is heard and proclaimed, something takes place that for all our hermeneutical skill cannot be brought about by hermeneutical skill.” (148; I.1)

“If the Church believes what it says it believes, then it is the place where the victory of Jesus Christ is not the last word to be heard and passed on but the first…The Church which is this place will have something to say to the world and will be taken seriously by the world.” (156; I.1)

“Invariably, then, faith is acknowledgment of our limit and acknowledgement of the mystery of God’s Word, acknowledgment of the fact that our hearing is bound to God Himself…and to Himself, not giving Himself in either case into our hands but keeping us in His hands.” (176; I.1)

“The possibility of knowledge of God’s Word lies in God’s Word and nowhere else.” (222; I.1)

“He has not created his own faith; the Word has created it. He has not come to faith; faith has come to him through the Word. He has not adopted faith; faith has been granted to him through the Word.” (244; I.1)

The Bible against the Church [Blogging through Barth, part 4]

At the outset, let me say that I do not claim that this whole post will be faithful to Barth. It is often difficult to speak in the precise way he wants because he’s a pretty original thinker. With that caveat in mind, I found his discussion of the function of the Bible in the church really stimulating.

We have all heard it before, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” I find myself in a weird position: I see people (rightly) criticize a simplistic understanding of this saying but they do so for the wrong reasons. Once Barth was asked how he would summarize his work, he responded: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I find that interesting because while this response could be read in a simplistic way in line with the quote at the beginning of this paragraph, we still have a lot to learn from Barth about the function of the Bible in the church.

“The Bible found a voice and finds a voice in the Church. Hence the possibility is not ruled out that it may also find a voice over against the church…It might happen that in the Bible whose voice still sounds in the Church man hears the Word of God, that he really hears the Word which cannot be held captive or bracketed by the Church, which cannot be integrated into the Church’s own reality, which cannot by any interpretation be translated into a word of man, the Word which encounters the Church, with which the Church cannot sing a duet, but which it has simply to listen to as a full and unique solo.” (260-261; I.1)

Contextualizing Barth’s response in evangelicalism (in the sense often meant in America today, not the one Barth uses), it can be seen in response to a simply but deadly syllogism:

  1. What the Bible says is infallibly true.
  2. My interpretation of a Biblical text is what the Bible says.
  3. Therefore, my interpretation is infallibly true.

Because we have this tendency to conflate what God says in Scripture with our interpretation of Scripture since, obviously, our interpretation is for good reasons and so is the proper interpretation. The upshot of this is that if you disagree with me, then you are disagreeing with Scripture and thus God. Since the Bible says it, that settles it for me because I am faithful to God, while you on the other hand… Sometimes this thinking is explicit and sometimes (and more perniciously) this thinking isn’t as obvious.

A lot of this is often tied into the particular traditions we function in. Thus, proclamation is measured by whether it is truly Reformed, truly Arminian, in line with a congregational ecclesiology, etc. While this certainly has its place (as Barth notes), one starts to wonder if we ever really open ourselves up and ask whether the tradition we are working in is actually faithful to the text. Our natural response is to think that we have already examined Scripture and that’s why we part of the tradition we are a part of, but if we come to Scripture thinking we have the answers to certain questions, it’s doubtful that we are going to hear anything that says otherwise. Nonetheless, to follow Barth, the free God can still give grace even in our attempt to tame the text.

So, “dogmatics as the question of the Word of God in Church proclamation must be the critical question as to the agreement of Church proclamation, not with a norm of human truth or human value (the first possibility in our dilemma), nor with a standard of divine truth already known and proclaimed by the Church (the second possibility), but with the revelation attested in Holy Scripture.” (265; I.1) Even more specifically, “If questioned ceased, if dogma itself came on the scene instead of dogmas and dogmatic propositions, if the agreement of specific Church proclamation with the Word of God and therefore the Word of God itself in this specific Church proclamation could be demonstrated, then dogmatics would be at an end along with the ecclesia militans, and the kingdom of God would have dawned.” (269; I.1)

All of this can sound very abstract, so I find Barth’s comment at the end of this section particularly pertinent. “[Dogmatics] is a matter of the will of God whose acknowledgement or non-acknowledgement in the Church’s proclamation is somethign that should truly unsettle the whole Church, the Church as such and in all its members. The Church stands or falls with the object of dogmatic enquiry. Hence it has to undertake this enquiry…We pursue dogmatics because, constrained by the fact of the Bible, we cannot shake off the question of the obedience of Church proclamation.” (274; I.1)

“But a theology claiming to know and have dogma would be a theologia gloriae, which the dogmatics of the Church ought not to seek to be.” (268; I.1)

MLK Jr. Day–Learning to Listen

Tomorrow is MLK Jr. Day. I plan on doing two things in order to make the most of it:

(1) Most importantly, I plan on listening to MLK Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. I have done this for a few years and have found it beneficial. Sometimes I pay attention to the makeup of the crowd, other times I try to think about the Biblical precursors underlying his speech (sometimes these are obvious because they are explicit quotes), etc. But the goal isn’t to simply to learn facts, but to be changed and shaped into the type of person who would be part of the struggle that MLK Jr. was part of.

(2) Second, I plan on starting Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. That book has been described in a lot of different ways, some very positive and others very negative. If you want a taste, just go browse some of the reviews. I think it would be easy for me to read it so that I can say that I read it and not actually listen to what Coates has to say. That way I can claim to be “enlightened” and care about social justice issues and thereby be superior to all of these racist people that don’t get it, but really I would just be going through the motions. I don’t really care much for that, so I am going to try and listen, try and open myself up to what he has to say, especially if it is uncomfortable to hear. I probably end up blogging about the book at some point, but we will see.

I hope you will at least listen to MLK Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and see if it doesn’t make you into a better person.

Random Quotes 1 [Blogging through Barth, part 3]

“Theological thinking which by the grace of God is truly responsible and relevant, and stands in true connexion with contemporary society, will even to-day will show itself to be such by not allowing itself to be drawn into discussion of its basis, of the question of the existence of God or of revelation. On the contrary, it will refrain from attempted self-vindication as its theme demands, and thus shows its responsibility and relevance by simply fulfilling itself as thinking on this basis, and therefore by simply existing as the witness of faith against unbelief.” (29-30, I.1)

“[T]here can be no shattering of the axiom of reason [meaning sinful and fallen human reason] alone these lines [trying to engage in apologetics of the points above], but only as theology goes its own way sincerely and with no pretense. Apologetics and polemics can only be an event and not a programme.” (31, I.1)

“[T]hat prologeomena to dogmatics are possible only as part of dogmatics itself…In order to give an account of the way of knowledge pursues in dogmatics, we cannot take up a position which is somewhere apart from this way or above the work of dogmatics.” (42, I.1)

“If the social work of the Church as such were to try to be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at the thought of pretending [trying to live out] to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.” (50, I.1)

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.