Karl Barth Reading Group - Week 2

(Once again, here are the notes that I prepared on the material covered by the Karl Barth reading group that I am currently co-leading.)

§ 3. Church Proclamation as the Material of Dogmatics

Talk about God in the Church seeks to be proclamation to the extent that in the form of preaching and sacrament it is directed to man with the claim and expectation that in accordance with its commission it has to speak to him the Word of God to be heard in faith. Inasmuch as it is a human word in spite of this claim and expectation, it is the material of dogmatics, i.e., of the investigation of its responsibility as measured by the Word of God which it seeks to proclaim.

1. Talk about God and Church Proclamation

Although all human talk could and should be about God, all human talk is not about God. Life is simultaneously secular and sacred. There are two distinctions: first, the distinction between what intends to be profane and what intends to be sacred speech, and second the distinction between what attempts to be sacred speech and what is actually, by God’s free grace, speech about God.[1] While one has assurance of faith, this is not to become “over-confidence.” (47-49)

“If the being of the Church, Jesus Christ as the acting person of God, sanctifies the being of man in the visible sphere of human occurrence as being in the Church, then He also sanctifies its talk about God taking place in the Church.”[2] Not everything the church does is proclamation. The church also responds to God in various ways. Barth seems to want to distinguish between proclamation in a pure sense and other activities of the church. Social work is understood to be a fitting response to God (“If God exists for man…then this man…must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man.”) but not as proclamation itself. (49-50)

This goes for theology as well. Proclamation is theology’s “presupposition, its material and its practical goal” but “not its content or task. Theology reflects upon proclamation. It confronts it as a court of criticism.” Proclamation in the pure sense has to do with speech about God directed to persons in such a way that God’s claim upon them is brought to bear. Seem from the side of human activity, the church’s proclamation merely serves God’s Word. But, seen from the side of God’s activity, the church’s proclamation is God’s own Word. The church’s proclamation can only aim to service to grace or a means of grace.[3] And the church proclaims because it has been given a commission. (51-53)

The visible church is not necessarily coextensive with the invisible church, although we can expect overlap. This is because, and should remind us, of the fact that the church is not the master of God’s word. God may speak even in a flute concerto or a dead dog.[4] But, though God may speak to the church through a pagan or an atheist, that doesn’t mean that the church must adopt the pagan or atheistic thing. These things are not to be incorporated as independent sources of the church’s proclamation. (54-55)

The commission to proclamation that the church has received takes two forms: (1) preaching and (2) sacrament. Matthew 28 is a foundation of this two-fold commission, but this commission cannot be assumed simply because the church is obedient to it. For it is not obedient, and we must always ask whether God can speak despite this disobedience. This proclamation is response to God’s Word, as other things like social action were seen to be response and not proclamation, but proclamation must also be in a class of its own as a norm of these ‘other’ responses. (56-58)

Given this commission, what does proclamation look like? Proclamation means announcement and repetition of God’s promises and, to be such, it must be “controlled and guided” by Scripture and not simply “arbitrary religious discourse.” But, real repetition is not mere repetition and one (the preacher) must make these promises intelligible in one’s own day and in one’s own words. But, how is God’s Word to be preached also as God’s Work? God’s Word is accompanied by the Holy Spirit which confirms the word with work. This is the role of the Sacraments, which represent God’s promise not in further words but in action. But here the sacraments are still a question of serving God’s Word. (59-61)

Modern dogmatics hasn’t done too well with this in Barth’s estimation. Schleiermacher and Tillich are referenced with the conclusion that “man is finally conceived of as conversing only with himself.”[5] But, for Barth, “Proclamation as self-exposition must in the long runt urn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking.” Roman Catholics get this wrong too, and not just because the emphasize sacraments in the same way that Protestants emphasize preaching. Instead, preaching is not seen to be a means of grace. That the Mass can be seen as complete without preaching demonstrates this. (62-66)

The Reformation wanted to find the center of the Church’s life in preaching as the repetition of God’s promises and in hearing with faith as their reception, and all this understood as an event of the presence and grace of God. The importance of faith is primary here, and this is what the Roman Catholics don’t get in Barth’s opinion. Instead of proclamation, encounter and faith, they have a system of divine cause and creaturely effect. (67-69)

What then is the proper relation between preaching and the Sacraments? The Reformation wanted to think “not as cause and effect, but as Word and faith.” If the sacraments are understood as proclamation of God’s promises through symbolic action, then this presupposes a verbal repetition of these promises (preaching). “The former [sacraments] must exist for the latter [preaching], and therefore the sacrament for the sake of preaching not vice versa. Hence not the sacrament alone nor preaching alone, nor yet, to speak meticulously, preaching and the sacrament in double track, but preaching with the sacrament, with the visible act that confirms human speech as God’s act, is the constitutive element, the perspicuous centre of the Church’s life.” (70)

2. Dogmatics and Church Proclamation

The church’s proclamation “is always and always will be man’s word…When and where it pleases God, it is God’s own Word. Upon the promise of this divine good-pleasure it is ventured in obedience.” IT cannot be self-assured but is responsible to God. And, precisely because of the importance of this responsibility to God, it is completely free from responsibility in other quarters. This responsibility is situated between yesterday and tomorrow, critiquing yesterday’s proclamation for the advance of tomorrow’s. The church must fear God and not the world, but it is only when the church fears God that it need not fear the world. Criticisms coming from the world are really just demands for the church to do its thing properly and with all seriousness. (71-74)

The fear of God demands the corresponding activity on the human side of self-critique, a practice which Barth takes as undermining the Roman Catholic notion of the church’s infallibility. But, “The Church can neither question its proclamation absolutely nor correct it absolutely. It can only exert itself to see how far it is questioned and how far it ought to be corrected.” Theology and dogmatics concerns itself with this responsibility of the church. (Great fine print section!) On the basis of how the church spoke of God yesterday, dogmatics asks about how it should do so tomorrow. It measures the church’s proclamation, which seeks to be God’s Word, by God’s Word. (75-77)

Because it takes its bearings from ‘yesterday,’ dogmatics must be concerned with the Christian tradition, for yesterday is the sum of that tradition. Furthermore, it turns to the form of yesterday’s proclamation that has already been tested, that is, it turns to the history of dogmatics. For this reason dogmatics is a scholastic undertaking.[6] But this does not mean the development of a “system of Christian truth” because dogmatics can only be done sufficiently for the next day and because dogmatics is not itself the material of proclamation, although dogmatics helps to shape proclamation.[7] Still, exegetes and practical theologians must also give attention to the dogmatic question because one’s dogmatics shapes one’s exegesis, etc. (78-81)

What then can be said of the relation between dogmatics and proclamation? (1) The necessity of dogmatics is different than that of proclamation in that proclamation is primary and dogmatics is secondary. Thus, (2) dogmatics serves proclamation. This goes along the lines of the juxtaposition of the notions of pistis or credere on the one hand, and gnosis or intelligere on the other. There are three sub-points here: (a) Dogmatics is a different mode but not a higher stage of faith than proclamation. There is no great spirituality attached to dogmatics. (b) Dogmatics does not take its cues from a different or higher source of knowledge than does proclamation. Neither is dogmatics more profound than preaching. (c) Dogmatics is not an end in itself; again, it serves proclamation. For this reason, Scotus was right against Thomas in affirming that theology is / should be understood as a practical as opposed to a speculative science. (3) Dogmatics is needed in order for proclamation to be responsible. Still, it does not pin down what faith and revelation are in themselves. “God, His revelation and faith always live their own free life over against all human talk, including that of the best dogmatics.” Dogmatics is simply guidelines about this proclamation.[8] In this sense, then, church proclamation must remain free even from dogmatics. (82-87)


[1] Barth mentions an “antithesis of judgment and grace.” Could this be an allusion to part 2 of Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith and its antithesis between sin and grace?

[2] What does Barth mean by speaking of Jesus as the “acting person of God?” Furthermore, Barth seems to be working with a notion of ‘in the church’ rather than ‘in Christ’ here. It is true that he talks about Christ as the being of the church, but this still seems a bit different from some of his later patterns.

[3] The notion that Barth seems to be getting at here is “instrument of grace” or, if we go even further behind the text, “instrument of the Spirit,” which can be quite a different thing than a ‘means of grace’ traditionally conceived.

[4] These are two of Barth’s own examples. The former is a reference to Schleiermacher’s autobiographical remarks concerning the Christmas Eve Dialogues, which were inspired by a flute concerto.

[5] The contrast seems to be about the proper role of symbol (sacraments as actions in the service of the Word) and the improper role (symbols as religious self-expression).

[6] Barth talks about a “gymnastic” undertaking, and he also speaks of dogmatics’ business as “that of the school,” all of which leads me to the notion of scholasticism.

[7] Fine print: “It is a familiar and perhaps unavoidable beginner’s mistake of students and assistants, when preaching, to think that they can and should confidently take the content of their preaching from their treasured college notebooks and textbooks of dogmatics. On the other hand, older preachers are usually far too confident in removing themselves from the jurisdiction of this critical authority." Large print: “One cannot and should not expect to hear the content of proclamation from dogmatics. This content must be found each time in the middle space between the particular text in the context of the whole Bible and the particular situation of the changing moment. Dogmatics can only be a guide to the right mastery and the right adaptability, to the right boldness and the right caution, for the given moment when this space has to be found.”

[8] Interestingly, this sounds a bit like Lindbeck to me.


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