Monday, February 07, 2011

Barth on How to Approach the Theological Tradition

Daniel Migliore, “Karl Barth’s First Lectures in Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion” in Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991): xxxiv-xxxv.
In the Göttingen lectures Barth refers repeatedly to his mentors in the Reformed tradition as “the older writers”, “our older Protestant predecessors”, “the older Orthodox” theologians, “our forefathers”, “our older Protestant fathers”, “the older dogmaticians”. Indeed, he cites them far more often than either Calvin or Luther. Barth not only takes the Reformed scholastics seriously, but finds their theologoumena impressive despite their “baroque garb”.

But while he often employs the categories and distinctions of the scholastics, he does not slavishly follow them. Wishing that theology today could regain something of the “remarkable objectivity and perspicacity” of the “masters of the old theological school”, he nevertheless tries to say better what they intended to say, and not infrequently diverges explicitly and sharply from their positions. While Barth considers continuity with the Reformed school a mark of his theological method, this does not mean for him a “repristination of the older Christian or Reformed dogmatics”. What he is after is something quite different from mere repetition of the Reformed traditions. His aim is to explore to what extent the lines drawn by the elders are necessary and right. The material must be thought through again from the very foundations. While respect is owed to the teachers of the church, their work cannot be simply repeated. True dogma is not something given but something sought. Received dogmas are only preliminary stopping points in what is a continuing task of theological reflection within the church. According to Barth, it is necessary initially to suspend the validity of any given dogma in order to test it and see to what extent it can be established anew. Even the decisions of Nicea and Chalcedon are in principle open to correction.
Of course, we in our own day must approach Barth in much the same manner.

4 comments:

Bobby Grow said...

Which is what makes Barth one of the best of what it looks like to be a "Reformed" theologian. semper reformanda!

Glenn said...

Mr. McMaken
It is true, isn't it, that we must always be hearing the dogma new? Didn't Barth say that God's revelation must constantly refresh our dogma?
Enjoyed your report on the 2010 conference, too.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Hi Glenn,

There is a distinction between the dogma, and the church's dogmas. The latter are a witness to the former, conceived as Jesus Christ. Given that sort of distinction, I'm not clear how your comments and what I have posted from Migliore finally differ. So, yes, I think that is true. :-)

Mike said...

Amen to what Bobby said. Trying "to say better what [the old masters] intended to say... While respect is owed to the teachers of the church, their work cannot be simply repeated. True dogma is not something given but something sought" -- all that seems to me to represent the best of theological work.

Incidentally, I was fortunate enough to take several classes with Dr. Migliore during my years at PTS. Wonderful lecturer and very kind man.