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Reading the Church Dogmatics 12: The Rules of the Game

The existence of other sciences, and the praiseworthy fidelity with which many of them at least pursue their own axioms and methods, can and must remind [theology] that it must pursue its own task in due order and with the same fidelity. But it cannot allow itself to be told by them what this means concretely in its own case.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.8

Let me have another go at the idea I was discussing in the previous post. I have a mathematical background, and it makes perfect sense to me to think that one might conduct a rigorously academic investigation in which one simply takes as read a given set of ground-rules, and sees what kind of mathematical object, what kind of system, those rules generate. The results of such an investigation take a hypothetical form: If these rules, then these conclusions – but that hypothetical form does not make them academically suspect. They are made rigorously academic by the forms of care with which the arguments from assumed axioms to conclusions are made.

One way of seeing dogmatic theology as an academic discipline – as a ‘science’ – would be to see it as taking such a hypothetical form. It begins with a set of group rules that, from the point of view of the academy, must be regarded as assumptions, and then it asks what follows from them. In order to pursue this academic investigation, one needs to learn the rules of this game (including rules about how contradictions are handled, about what counts as evidence, about what kind of inferences are possible), and follow them with fidelity, and the investigation is not made one whit more academic by substituting the rules of some other game. I’m not suggesting that this is anything more than an approximation to the way that dogmatic theology works as an academic discipline – in particular, I don’t want to get too carried away with the idea of theology as having the same form of rigour as a deductive mathematical system – but I think it is nevertheless a useful approximation.

Playing this academic game would still count as ‘academic’, and would resemble other academic games, not because the rules followed were the same, but because ‘like all others [i.e., other ‘sciences’] it treads a definite and self-consistent path of knowledge’ and does so ‘in due order and with the same fidelity’ (8). It resembles other academic games, in other words, in the very idea that it involves learning and following a set of rules. Furthermore, the rules that it follows can be made public – not in the sense that they can be made to resemble, or to follow from, the rules followed by some other discipline, but simply in the sense that they can be made explicit: ‘like all others, [theology] must give an account of this path to itself and to all others who are capable of concern for this object and therefore of treading this path’ (8). There is nothing esoteric about theology: it is a ‘human concern’; it involves no ‘ontological exaltation’ above other disciplines; it is ‘only a science’ (my emphasis) and is therefore a ‘secular’ endeavour (11).

One caveat. The game taken up in dogmatic theology is one which, ultimately, has something to say about everything. And quite early on it has something to say about the very ideas of fidelity, discipline, rules – and about the appropriate demeanour and attentiveness of the theologian. It might, for instance, deprecate the picture of theological science as a form of patient constructive labour set in a context of increasing knowledge, and instead want to speak of it as, say, a form of repentance in the light of sin. What may begin as the subsumption of ‘dogmatic theology’ under the heading ‘science’ may lead to a rethinking of the nature of ‘science’, at least in theology’s case and perhaps more generally.


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