Daily Archives: November 7, 2013

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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.