Daily Archives: October 21, 2013

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Reading the Church Dogmatics 7: Content

As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.3 (emphasis added).

Barth says that dogmatic theology (unlike biblical theology and practical theology) asks ‘the question of the content of the distinctive utterance of the Church’ – the question being ‘Is it conformable to Him?’, to ‘Jesus Christ, God in His gracious revealing and reconciling address to man’ (4). It treats the content (Inhalt), rather than the basis (Begründung) or the goal (Ziel), of the church’s utterance.

It seems to me that quite a lot is implied in this focus on ‘content’. It implies that we have an ability to perform certain kinds of manipulation on the deliveries of scripture (investigated in biblical theology), and even therefore implies that we are capable of a certain kind of mastering of that which properly masters us.

To pursue biblical theology assumes an ability at least to follow the thrust of biblical texts, and to make sense of each of them. To pursue dogmatic theology assumes an ability to gather, and in that sense to order, the diverse materials investigated by biblical theology. It assumes an ability, at least to an extent, to see why each component stands as it does – to elaborate and elucidate the ordering and connection of these materials. It implies an ability to build them into a structure of some kind – a structure that we, the theologians, grasp. It implies at least some degree of systematising.

At the far end of such systematising activity would stand a fully systematic theology, in which all the diverse material of Christian speech is derived from some graspable systematic centre. Barth refuses to imagine or pursue that kind of full systematicity – and his insistence on the unsystematic relationship between practical, biblical and dogmatic theology is simply one sign of this. (He does not stop short of such total systematisation arbitrarily, of course – he will give an account of why and how theology is systematic, and of the limits upon its systematicity, in due course, building those limits into the meaningful structure that he sets out.)

However far he stays from total systematising, though, Barth does defiantly make the move from the simple tracing or following of what has been said to us to the task of ordering it, connecting it, treating it as a meaningful structure of speech – a structure of meanings, of ideas – that can be investigated and understood.

That move is only possible precisely because he takes the church’s speech to be about a common subject.  That is, it is possible (in Barth’s case) because he takes the church’s speech to be about God – about God’s revealing and reconciling address in Jesus Christ. In other words, he takes it, not as an irreducibly fragmented collection of discourses, each sample to be explained only as a contribution to its own specific social and intellectual context, connected only by strands of influence and evolution to other samples, but as an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter.


This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.