Concluding my notes on Karl Barth’s C.D I/II hasn’t been a simple task.
Part one and part two covered being called to decision. Both addressed Barth’s theology of the Word of God, discussing how in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, humanity is confronted with freedom, and how we are ultimately orientated towards fellowship with God by His revelation.
Church Dogmatics is translated from German into English. The text can be dense at times and has a tendency to come off a bit long winded. Barth goes to great lengths in order to state and then restate key concepts that could be (and are at times) easily misinterpreted, such as the Freedom of man for God, as it is realised in His revelation and election.
Despite these surface level limitations, the reader is confronted with the need to mine the copious amounts of ‘’gold’’ that can be found. These are rarely one-liners and appear more often than not in paragraphs that are too long to quote. As a result I have had to decide between the great and the good; a painful necessity.
I now appreciate the words of one lecturer who had stated something along these lines: “Barth is un-preachable. His work is great for exegetical questions and theological discussion, but of not much help to the person in the pew – you’re more than likely to leave them bewildered and confused’’
I disagree, however, with the inference which can be drawn from this, and that is that Barth’s Church Dogmatics are only suitable for a “particular” few; as if Barthian theology was for the private sphere because it’s not easy enough for the public to understand. There’s a “special” kind of wrong in this form of academic arrogance.
It is true that one does not just include Barth in a sermon without some consideration for the hearers. There is, as Barth notes, an ‘inseparable difference[i]’ between the ‘the task of dogmatics and the task of proclamation [preaching][ii]’; the former ‘furnishes the latter…because the the hearing Church has to be a teaching Church[iii].’
Nevertheless, during the earlier part of the 20th Century Barth was a preacher, first in Geneva, and then in Safenwil, Switzerland, holding that position for ten years.
Barth’s preaching was theological; perhaps viewed as an attempt at dogmatics in proclamation? Secondly, Church Dogmatics (from what I’ve studied and read so far) is, in sum, the administration and proclamation of the Gospel. (For more on this I highly recommend reading William Willimon’s introduction in ‘The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons’)
I/II, ‘The Doctrine of the Word of God’ isn’t any different.
Every fibre of Barth’s work is pointed directly at Jesus Christ. Its contents exist as if they were his own rendition of John’s proclamation: ‘behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World’ (Matthew, I:29 – to borrow an image from Barth C.D I/I:113).
Some highlights and a brief reflection.
The Holy Spirit, Prayer and the Responsive Sinner
On this Barth writes that:
- ‘At the focal point of the Church’s action the decisive activity is prayer and gratitude…because it is the decisive activity prayer must take precedence even over exegesis, and in no circumstances must it be suspended’[iv]
- ‘To pray is a free act of humanity. Certainly the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in prayer as we ought (Rom.8:26). Nevertheless this does not alter the fact that it is us praying when we pray…When we pray we turn to God with the confession that we are not really capable of doing it, but we also turn to God with the faith that we are invited and authorised to do it…We must remember that prayer is literally the archetypal form of all human acts of freedom ’[v]
Philosophy and Biblical Interpretation
Barth issues ‘warnings in regards to the use of philosophy.[vi]’
Philosophy has to do with the human mode of thought; theology, the Scriptural mode of thought.
Affirming exegesis 101, Barth asserts that we must ‘allow the text to speak for itself’[vii]
This is because ‘everyone has some sort of philosophy i.e., a personal view of a fundamental nature and relationship of things – however popular, aphoristic, irregular and eclectically uncertain. ’[viii]
‘It becomes dangerous when we posit it [philosophy] absolutely over against Scripture, expecting that by placing it, as it were, on the same high level as scripture, we can use it to control Scripture…Scripture is necessarily distorted – it leads to falsification of Scripture[ix].
Barth finishes on four clear points,
Second: ‘obedient faith…is the exercise of the freedom which granted to us under the Word.[xii]’ Finally, ‘we must speak as God speaks. We cannot do this if we are looking at ourselves instead of at Jesus Christ[xiii]’
Third: ‘God exposes humanity as a sinner even as He is gracious to us, we are really only judged by the grace of God[xiv]’ ; ‘because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, we are transposed into the kingdom of God’s grace. This transformation us to be accepted as fact.[xv]’
Lastly, ‘even in the presence of divine action, man is still man, and although by the divine promise he is relieved of anxiety about the success, justification and sanctification if his action, he is not relieved of responsibility for it [xvi]’
This includes an in depth breakdown of ‘Pure Doctrine as the Problem of Dogmatics’, ‘The Mission of the Church‘ and ‘Dogmatics as a function of the hearing church.’
For Barth doctrine is akin to discipline and not theory. Meaning that pure doctrine is about ‘teaching, instruction, edification and application – it is a deed; an event, not a thing.[xvii]’
Pages 782-796 are full of arguments in favour of the view that ‘dogmatics itself is ethics’[xviii]. Later Barth draws on the importance of the dogmatic task, writing that it is ‘evangelical as understood as the one holy, universal and apostolic Church[xix].’ Here he notes that it is better to refer to Evangelical dogmatics as ‘Church Dogmatics’. Possibly due to misappropriated modern attachments that have made the word “evangelical” a loaded term.
According to Barth ‘there is no such thing as dogmatic tolerance. Where dogmatics exists at all, it exists only with the will to be a Church Dogmatics; dogmatics of the ecumenical Church.[xx]’ Dogmatics is a science.
It is difficult to pick one or two parts of this text that stand out as must reads. If I had to choose from between them my suggestion would be, begin with ‘The outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ and then move onto ‘The Mission of the Church’. These form an introduction of sorts to the contents on the whole.
This mammoth read is an outstanding analysis of the Christian and the Church; their mission, the individual and communal responsibility towards which we are called, aided and freed to participate in. Such as, responding to grace in the light and shadow of God’s revelation in Jesus the Christ.
There is still a more lot to take in. Reading Barth’s work is something of a journey that the reader revisits and is rewarded for doing so.
These three reviews are an important part of that adventure.
[i] Or ‘distinction and unity’ thereof, (p.770)
[ii] Barth, K. 1938 C.D I/II: The Doctrine of The Word of God, Hendrickson Publishers, p.769
[ix] ‘Every philosophy which is posited absolutely leads to the falsification of Scripture because to posit absolutely what is man’s own and is brought by him to the Word is an act of unbelief which makes impossible the insights of faith and therefore a true interpretation of the Word.’(p.732)
[xvii] pp. 763 & 768