Karl Barth Reading Group - Week 6

This is the final installment of the Karl Barth Reading Group notes. You can expect future installments if and when the group reconvenes.

§ 7. The Word of God, Dogma and Dogmatics

Dogmatics is the critical question about dogma, i.e., about the Word of God in Church proclamation, or, concretely, about the agreement of the Church proclamation done and to be done by man with the revelation attested in Holy Scripture. Prolegomena to dogmatics as an understanding of its epistemological path must therefore consist in an exposition of the three forms of the Word of God as revealed, written, and preached.

1) The Problem of Dogmatics

Dogmatics arises in response to the question of whether the human activity of proclamation is also obedience, and for this reason dogmatics judges proclamation. The criterion of this judgment is Scripture as the “concrete form of the Word of God.” This criterion is not to be replaced by any other for if it is, dogmatics becomes something other than dogmatics, and the church is left to depend upon its own resources. A fine print section suggests that, in different ways, this is the failing of both Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Modernism. (248-259)

Scripture’s superiority to other would be criterions of dogmatics and proclamation cannot be proven, for to prove it one must appeal to an even higher criterion, which would defeat the whole point. Scripture’s superiority cannot even be proved by the existence of faith, because what we assume is faith “might even be God-forsaken unbelief.” Thus, we can only bear witness and point to this criterion, which is itself a witness. Ultimately, “We can say no more than this, that the Bible can answer for itself in this matter.”[1] (259-265)

Dogmatics, then, is not the science of dogmas but of dogma. The former has to do with authoritative theological expression, the latter has to do with that which gives rise to these expressions, namely, the Word of God. Dogmas are never anything more than human expressions, even though they are especially significant expressions. The dogmas formulated by the church “can and should guide dogmatics. But [they] cannot seek to be the dogma which is the goal of dogmatics…[because dogmatics] aims at the truth of revelation.” Dogmatics is, in this sense, an “eschatological concept,” for the truth at which dogmatics aims is never captured in the theological expression given to it by humans. (265-269)

Dogmatics is not to be undertaken for the sake of mere theory. We are concerned in theology with the correspondence of theological formulation to objective reality, but not in an abstract way. Thus, dogmas do not carry the force of divine command but human command. What dogmatics is primarily concerned about is human obedience to the command of God. “We pursue dogmatics because, constrained by the fact of the Bible, we cannot shake off the question of the obedience of Church proclamation. The question of its obedience includes that of its truth. But the question of its truth can be put only as the question of its obedience.” (269-275)

2) Dogmatics as a Science

What it means for dogmatics to be a science is “responsibility to its object and to the task imposed by this object.” There are regular and irregular forms of dogmatics. Regular dogmatics is concerned with “the completeness appropriate to the special task of the school of theological instruction.” The human reality of the church requires such theology. Irregular dogmatics lacks this concern for completeness and consists more in “free discussion of the problems that arise for Church proclamation.” Both sorts of dogmatics must be open and attentive to each other, indeed, they must learn from each other. (275-278)

What Barth is on about, however, is regular dogmatics, an unapologetically so: “Nothing that can claim to be truly of the Church need shrink from the sober light of ‘scholasticism’…Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet.” There are three things required of scientific dogmatics: (1) it must be concerned with church proclamation, for it is itself preparation for proclamation, (2) is must not merely exposit but must critique and correct proclamation,[2] (3) it must ask about how church proclamation matches the revelation witnessed to by Scripture. Indeed, “Dogmatic work stands or falls by whether the standard by which Church proclamation is measured is the revelation attested in Holy Scripture.” Barth goes on to discuss Scripture as this measure, especially in relation to culture. He concludes this section by noting that dogmatics is only a program to the extent that it is a calling, which means that although dogmatics must make judgments, these judgments are only provisional. “[W]e can only make, as it were, a judgment for the moment, for to-day, and tomorrow we must give another hearing.” Still, “What finally counts is whether a dogmatics is scriptural.” (278-287)

3) The Problem of Dogmatic Prolegomena

Although the criterion of dogmatics has been discussed, the ‘path of knowledge’ it pursues has not, that is, how proclamation is to be measured by Scripture. Three things must be done in this regard: (1) a doctrine of Scripture must be proffered, (2) a doctrine of church proclamation must likewise be explicated, (3) but, decisively, an account of the Word of God as that which is revealed and to which Scripture and proclamation bear witness must be put forth. This cannot be a general account of revelation, but “the concrete concept of revelation which the Bible attests…the epiphany of Jesus Christ.” Ultimately, this means a discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Because he is no longer concerned with the forms but with their inner and mutual relations, Barth will now follow the ontological order (revelation, Scripture, proclamation) rather than the epistemological order (proclamation, Scripture, revelation) pursued in §4.

[1] This is very similar to Calvin’s notion of Scripture as self-authenticating. Cf. his Institutes, 1.7.

[2] Barth elaborates: “[T]he question is put here too, and must be answered by every dogmatics, whether dogmatics is a part of Church history or of information about the present-day Church, or whether it is itself a part of the Church’s action.” It seems as though Barth is distancing himself from Schleiermacher’s tack as set-forth in the latter’s Brief Outline on the Study of Theology.


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