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Reading the Church Dogmatics 17: The Dynamics of Repair

[D]ogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and the prophets said, but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 16.

In the previous post, I picked Nick Adams’ pocket in order to describe the ‘reparative logic‘ that drives Barth’s dogmatics.  In Barth’s exposition of the necessity of dogmatics (pp. 13–17) it seems to me that he describes two contrasting dynamics that shape the work of repair.

FIrst, there is the meditative dynamic.  Having described the church as finding itself ‘challenged to know itself, and therefore . . . to ask, with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know, what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’, Barth provides a small-text paragraph on the relationship between faith and understanding in Augustine and Anselm.  He cites Augustine’s description of the need to seek understanding of what we already know by faith, and then Anselm’s description of faith’s search for intellectus fidei, a ‘genuine intus legere [inward reading] of Scripture and dogma’ (p. 16).  He even cites with (qualified!) approval, Anselm’s ‘remoto Christo‘ method in Cur deus homo – that is, Anselm’s desire to understand, of any given component of the faith handed down to him, and in the light of the whole structure of that faith, why that component stands where it does.

Anselm’s method is nothing more than an extension of monastic lectio – a lectio that is explored by meditatio. I have written a little about this elsewhere:

To say that Anselm’s meditatio is a practice of articulation, then, is to say that it provides the passage between reading and composition, between the texts of lectio and the articulated texts of the Monologion, the Proslogion and the rest. And the tools of such meditatio are ‘the rules of logic and grammar’. They allow Anselm to ask of a difficult text, ‘Why this word here?’, and ‘How does this go with that?’ They provide a set of techniques and vocabularies of conceptual distinction and connection, by which the unruly, disorganized materials discovered by lectio can be categorized and strung into chains of connected argument.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm

Such meditatio takes the jumble of truths yielded by patient reading of Scripture and dogma, and seeks to order them, to see how they hang together.  In Anselm’s description of the composition of the Proslogion, it is clear that

The . . . disorder of his earlier conclusions distressed him, and he sensed or hoped that a further articulation—a more articulate articulation— of the fruits of his earlier meditation might be possible. Its birth was not without its labour pains: a ‘restless anxious mood’ of the kind that Carruthers says ‘was regarded in monastic circles as a common, even necessary preliminary to invention’—that is, to the drawing together of the materials sorted and stored by memoria into an articulated composition. The driving force of the meditation that gives birth to the Proslogion is this restless desire for unity, for economy or elegance in articulation: ‘one single argument’.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting Mary Caruthers, The Craft of Thought

The meditative dynamic that is visible here is a dynamic generated from within the materials of the inherited faith, as they seek to settle into a more economical configuration.  The meditative dogmatician is the servant of this settling.

This is not dogmatics in the Barthian sense, however, even if it might be the seedbed for a Barthian dogmatics, and the labour involved might be a precondition for a Barthian dogmatics.  The meditative dynamic to which Barth alludes in this small-print section (and which can make sense of much of what he says in this section, up to p. 16) is contained within a different dynamic – one that, for lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call a contextual dynamic.  Given the many uses of the word ‘contextual’, this is potentially very misleading, but I am simply trying to do justice to the word ‘to-day’ in the phrase ‘what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’.

The energy that drives a Barthian dogmatics is only secondarily the delight of articulation, of meditative exploration of what has been received.  Before that, the primary energy is the energy of judgment – the discovery today, in some particular context, that the church stands under judgment – that the source to which it points stands over against it and calls it into question.  Barth’s reparative endeavour begins with the discovery of a problem, a failure, a contradiction.  It begins by hearing (fallibly and partially, of course) a word of judgment.  Perhaps it would be better, instead of calling this the contextual dynamic of dogmatics, to call it the penitential dynamic.


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