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Reading the Church Dogmatics 15: Theological Certainty and Academic Freedom

[Dogmatics] does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures.  It sees and recognises that this is given with the Church . . . .  It stands by its claim without discussion.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 12

It sounds like dogmatics begins with a denial of academic freedom – a ‘get out of criticism free’ card.

The first thing to say is: well, if it does, it does.  That wouldn’t mean we would have to abandon dogmatics, though might mean that it could not find a home in certain kinds of academic institution.

The second thing to say, though, is that it doesn’t.  If dogmatics is an investigation of the discourse of the church, measuring that discourse against its own criterion, then the existence and importance of the endeavour as an academic discipline is not dependent upon a demonstration of the truth of that criterion.  Indeed, the existence and importance of such a discipline could even survive a demonstration of its falsity (supposing such a thing to be intelligible).  The discipline does not earn its place in the academy only when it has convinced its academic colleagues from other disciplines that Jesus truly is Lord, still less when it has convinced them that they should accept such a claim without discussion.

What the discipline of dogmatics could not easily survive is the demonstration that the church it envisages did not exist, or that the discourse it pursued was not recognised in the church.  (The discipline itself might still survive, I suppose, as a form of prophecy – the imagining of a non-existent church in the hope that it might come into being – but it is hard to see how it could then find a home in academic institutions.)

In other words, what Barth says here about the ‘certainty’ of dogmatics’ criterion is not an illegitimate academic claim – because he is not using the word ‘certainty’ as it lives in the general discourse of higher education as a term bandied around between disciplines.  This is an intrasystematic proposal: an argument about how certainty should be spoken of in the church, in relation to faith.


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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 14: In Media Res

Dogmatics as an enquiry presupposes that the true content of Christian talk about God can be known by man.  It makes this assumption as in and with the Church it believes in Jesus Christ as the revealing and reconciling address of God to man.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 12

Theology begins in faith that we have received the promise of God in Jesus Christ, that this promise is truly made to us. That is not a conclusion; it is not a judgment – it is simply the basis upon which Christian theology works. Barth does not ask here (indeed, he shows no interest here in asking) how we come to take this as our basis. If we do so take it, we are doing Christian theology. If we do not, we are not.

Barth is not interested in asking whether or not this is the right place for the church (and dogmatics with it) to look for discipline and judgment; he is not interested in asking whether or not the truth has really been given here. He does not, after all, think that we have anywhere to stand if we do want to ask those questions.

So when we say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and go on to ask whether we say it well, we are not asking, ‘Is it really Jesus who is Lord, or might we find another?’ Rather, we are seeking to be more faithful to the conviction that founds theology. That is (I take it) at least part of what it means that this standard is ‘given with the church’ (12): the church is, precisely, the communion founded on this promise.

I do not, however, want to describe ‘Jesus is Lord’ (or ‘Jesus Christ is the revealing and reconciling address of God to man’) as an axiom of our theological system.  I don’t want to suggest that this first claim (‘Jesus is Lord’) is fully in our grasp, and that our dogmatic task is to see what else it implies.  It is not, in that sense, a starting point.

Dogmatics does not have a starting point.

It always begins in media res, in the midst of things.  It begins its work in the midst of a church that already says ‘Jesus is Lord’ (and says it in some particular way – or, rather, a whole range of particular ways).  And it seeks to measure that church against the standard to which all that saying points.

Yet Dogmatics is only necessary at all because the church says this ‘Jesus is Lord’ inadequately – which means that the measuring work undertaken by dogmatics must be similarly inadequate.

All that dogmatics can do is take its stand on the church’s current ways of saying ‘Jesus is Lord’, and on the ways in which this speaking places the church under discipline, and then see what refinement and repair of the church’s present speech is demanded by that discipline.  To the extent that this leads the church to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ differently, it will also alter the form of discipline to which that speech points, and so alter the work that dogmatics has to do.  In other words: Dogmatics can only work with what the material it finds around itself; it cannot conduct its work of measurement with its feet planted on any foundation that could guarantee the accuracy and relevance of its work.

It would be tempting to say instead that the pursuit of dogmatics simply involves the trust that this process forms not a vicious circle nor a random walk but a spiral: that by means of this iterative asking and re-asking of the dogmatic question, with each iteration by itself inadequate, the speaking of the church can nevertheless be brought slowly but surely to more and more adequate ways of saying ‘Jesus is Lord’.  Yet, as I noted in an earlier post, even saying this would be saying too much, for Barth.  To use the language I used in that earlier post, theology takes place not just under discipline, but also under judgment – and therefore Barth can say that dogmatics must be ‘a laborious movement from one partial human insight to another with the intention though with no guarantee of advance‘ (12, emphasis mine).


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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 13: The Possibility of Dogmatics

In this initial approach we may simply say that when we describe the true content of the church’s talk about God as the object of human work or investigation, we presuppose that it has both the capacity and the need to serve as an object of human enquiry.  In other words, we presuppose that the “science of dogma” is both possible and necessary.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.11–12

In this subsection of the Dogmatics, Barth treats both the possibility of dogmatics (the fact that ‘dogma’, the true content of the church’s speech about God can be known) and its necessity (the fact that all our ways of grasping, ordering and knowing that content are inadequate, and stand in need of correction).  We should’t go overboard on describing this as a paradox or as a dialectic, as if Barth is giving with one hand and taking away with the other.  Rather, both sides of this argument assert the same thing: that it is God who is to be trusted.  We may trust that God has indeed, in Jesus Christ, revealed and reconciled – has drawn us into truth.  But our trust must remain fixed on God as the one from whom we receive and go on receiving this, and not shift to our own occupation or possession of that truth.

It is also important not to be misled by what Barth says about ‘certainty’, because it could all too easily be taken in a way that twisted this trust away from its true object.  Barth says that the standard by which dogmatics does its measuring of the church’s speech about God, ‘is given.  It is complete in itself.  It has the certainty which a true standard or criterion must have to be the means of serious measurement’ (12).  And he says that ‘What is or is not the true content of such talk about God is clear at once and with complete fulness and certainty in the light in which we are here set.’  But this is not an epistemological comment, a comment about any stage of the process of knowing from ‘intuitive apprehension to formulated comprehension’; it does not involve measuring the certainty of this theological knowledge on a scale of less certain to more certain sciences that might run from sociology through biology to physics and then mathematics.  He is not talking at all about the reasons we might have for being certain – the reasons we might have for making a judgment about this and putting it in the ‘certain’ rather than the ‘likely’ or ‘unlikely’ or ‘impossible’ column.

An epistemological claim to certainty would be a claim that placed us in the position of mastery.  Certainty would be our attribute, not the attribute of the true object of theology.  It is not in any way at all a claim about my self-certainty: a confident ‘I know all the answers’ kind of attitude.  That would, in fact, be a direct denial of what Barth is claiming: that it is God who is to be trusted.

So what is he saying?

Think of it in terms of a promise.  We have been made a promise. The one who has promised is utterly trustworthy, and his promise is sure. The certainty Barth speaks of is the certainty – the utter trustworthiness – of the promiser and of the promise.  Everything we do in response can and should be measured against that promise. Does this or that action of ours, this or that claim that we make, actually express trust in this promise?  The answer to such questions is not a foregone conclusion.  We may well, as we ask them, discover that our ways of trusting – or what we think of as our ways of trusting – actually hold something back.  We may discover that they have a hidden element of defensiveness, a reserve, and that we need to become more fully trusting. The complete certainty of the promise does not mean a complete certainty about the current quality of our trusting; indeed, it means quite the opposite: it means that our trusting is subject to judgment; it is called to account.

The church is that community that says ‘God has promised’ (or its equivalents, like ‘Jesus is Lord’). This can only be said in faith.  It is the first and foundational thing that faith says.  To have faith is to say, ‘God has promised, and I will trust to that promise; I will take it as my starting point.’  It means accepting a criterion by which whatever else one says (including everything that one might say in exposition of this basic claim) can be tested and measured.  However falteringly, however self-deceivingly, however inadequately the saying of it, what is said is that the promise has been made, and that we entrust ourselves to the one who made it.

Precisely because it is trust in the promise and in the one who promises, we can’t turn this trust into trust in our own knowledge of the promise, trust in our own understanding.  Do we ‘know’ the promise? In one sense, yes: the promise is made to us in Jesus Christ. But all our ways of describing and expounding the promise, all our claims to know its meaning and implications, are – precisely because it is the promise that is certain, and not us – to be tested against the promise itself (because this is about ‘divine certainty’ not ‘human security’ (12)).

What Barth offers here, then, is not a demonstration of the possibility of dogmatics, therefore – a demonstration that this sort of thing is possible in general.  It is, rather, an indication of what dogmatics must take to be true in order to function at all – what we can see to be its ground, its enabling assumption.


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