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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.