Author Archives: Mike Higton

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.

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.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 11: Theology as Science?

If theology allows itself to be called, and calls itself, a ‘science’, in so doing it declares 1. that like all other so-called sciences it is a human concern with a definite object of knowledge, 2. that like all others it treads a definite and self-consistent path of knowledge, and 3. that like all others it 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.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, pp. 7–8

Barth asks why ‘theology allows itself to be called, and calls itself, a “science”‘ (7). In the light of my discussions above, the answer seems to be clear. Theology is, on the account he has been giving, a form of discipline – a disciplined handling of intellectual or conceptual content. It is a disciplined investigation of Christian practice insofar as it speaks of God, in the light of the primary criterion to which that practice points – so its object and standards are not necessarily the same as those of other disciplines. Nevertheless, it resembles other sciences simply by being an intellectual discipline.

Barth is also right, however, that ‘there are good grounds’ for theology refraining from calling itself a science (7). Theology’s existence as a discipline is qualified by its existence under judgment – and so (at least in principle!) by a lightness of touch that knows itself to be incapable of securing its ends by its own labours. It is a discipline inherently sceptical of the power of discipline.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 10: Theology and Religious Studies

Within the sphere of the Church philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics, whether individually or in conjunction, might take up the task of measuring the Church’s talk of God by its being as the Church, thus making a special theology superfluous.  Theology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors.  Nor does it control a basis of knowledge which might not find actualisation in other sciences.  Nor does it know an object of enquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences.

Karl Barth, Church  Dogmatics I/1, p.5

In one sense, theology’s subject matter – the material with which it works – is not esoteric. It is not invisible to normal human eyes. It does not become visible only by means of some peculiar technique. Theology’s subject matter is there for all to see. Theology works with and on the practice of the church, and that practice is visible to ‘philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics’ (5). And theology measures this subject matter against criteria that are visibly pointed to by the practice itself: it pursues ‘criticism and correction of talk about God according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle’ (6).

In one sense, then, faith (the faith of the theologian, that is) is irrelevant to the theologian’s ability to pursue this task. Theology could even be seen as a branch of religious studies, taking off from religious studies’ multi-disciplinary description of the visible practice of the church, its identification of the language that the church audibly speaks and of the criteria for judgment acknowledged within that practice. Theology would simply be the form of religious studies that emerged when its practitioners took the decision to see what happens when one measures the church’s practice ‘according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle’ – in other words, to see what happens when one takes the faith of the church seriously in its own terms.

That does of course mean taking seriously the church’s claim that its speech is speech about God, and the ways in which the church’s speaking is practiced as a speaking under discipline and under judgment. If, in one sense, theology’s subject matter is Christian practice, and is there for all to see, in another sense it is Christian practice only insofar as that practice speaks of God, and so theology’s real subject matter is God. Barth can therefore also ask ‘what good theology will include its subject matter in the “reality accessible to us”?’ (8).

So, to the extent that theology takes the practice of the church as its subject matter, it does not in principle need to have a distinct existence over against religious studies, but might simply be part of religious studies. Such religious studies would, however, need to be open to the decision, discussed a couple of posts ago, to treat the practice of the church, not as an irreducibly fragmented collection of discourses, each fragment to be explained only as a contribution to its own specific social and intellectual context, but as an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter. And I am not sure that the claim that the church is an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter could itself emerge as a secure conclusion simply from attentive description of Christian practice. It seems to me that, if approached from the direction of a descriptive religious studies, such a decision could only rest upon the recognition that the church included its own practices of intellectual inquiry, within which that decision (however implausible or ungrounded) was habitually made – that is, that something like dogmatic theology already existed as an ecclesial practice, and that it was a practice whose internal dynamics and possibilities were worth understanding.

Barth’s main point when he introduces the relation of theology to other disciplines would then be that these decisions, to treat the church as possessing something like a coherent intellectual tradition, and to examine the self-criticism of the church possible in the light of this intellectual tradition, do not imply a move from exoteric to esoteric – from a sphere visible to the natural intellect to a sphere only visible to the eyes of faith. And it is only because religious studies does not take this form that theology is, in practice, distinct from it. The corollary of that would seem to be that there is no reason in principle why religious studies might not take a form in which it was open to the pursuit of investigations in which ‘the theme of theology’ (10) was taken up – and, in the light of what I have said above, I think that might be true even if in religious studies has not taken up that theme in general as its own governing criterion.

In other words, there is something here approaching an argument commending theology to the practitioners of religious studies. It is true that Barth is not going to allow us to make that argument glibly. To travel far down this route might seem to involve fitting theology neatly in as one discipline amongst others in precisely the way that Barth warns against (as mentioned in the previous post), and we would have to ask whether in the process theology’s own proper criterion was in fact being subordinated to some other, alien criterion. That’s a proper caution, but I don’t think it is a killer. If religious studies takes as one of its tasks understanding the internal dynamics of the religious communities that surround us, including the criteria by which those communities seek to criticise themselves, then it need not enter into a ‘conflict of will’ with theology – provided only that a church exists that does indeed seek (in whatever complex ways it deems appropriate) to ‘take up the theme of theology’. And it seems to me that this is not simply a theoretical point about what is possible ‘in principle’, but a real practical possibility, even if the existence and power of other visions for religious studies means we would be unwise to treat it as a stable and dependable reality.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 7: Content

As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.3 (emphasis added).

Barth says that dogmatic theology (unlike biblical theology and practical theology) asks ‘the question of the content of the distinctive utterance of the Church’ – the question being ‘Is it conformable to Him?’, to ‘Jesus Christ, God in His gracious revealing and reconciling address to man’ (4). It treats the content (Inhalt), rather than the basis (Begründung) or the goal (Ziel), of the church’s utterance.

It seems to me that quite a lot is implied in this focus on ‘content’. It implies that we have an ability to perform certain kinds of manipulation on the deliveries of scripture (investigated in biblical theology), and even therefore implies that we are capable of a certain kind of mastering of that which properly masters us.

To pursue biblical theology assumes an ability at least to follow the thrust of biblical texts, and to make sense of each of them. To pursue dogmatic theology assumes an ability to gather, and in that sense to order, the diverse materials investigated by biblical theology. It assumes an ability, at least to an extent, to see why each component stands as it does – to elaborate and elucidate the ordering and connection of these materials. It implies an ability to build them into a structure of some kind – a structure that we, the theologians, grasp. It implies at least some degree of systematising.

At the far end of such systematising activity would stand a fully systematic theology, in which all the diverse material of Christian speech is derived from some graspable systematic centre. Barth refuses to imagine or pursue that kind of full systematicity – and his insistence on the unsystematic relationship between practical, biblical and dogmatic theology is simply one sign of this. (He does not stop short of such total systematisation arbitrarily, of course – he will give an account of why and how theology is systematic, and of the limits upon its systematicity, in due course, building those limits into the meaningful structure that he sets out.)

However far he stays from total systematising, though, Barth does defiantly make the move from the simple tracing or following of what has been said to us to the task of ordering it, connecting it, treating it as a meaningful structure of speech – a structure of meanings, of ideas – that can be investigated and understood.

That move is only possible precisely because he takes the church’s speech to be about a common subject.  That is, it is possible (in Barth’s case) because he takes the church’s speech to be about God – about God’s revealing and reconciling address in Jesus Christ. In other words, he takes it, not as an irreducibly fragmented collection of discourses, each sample to be explained only as a contribution to its own specific social and intellectual context, connected only by strands of influence and evolution to other samples, but as an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 6: Three Circles

The work in which the Church submits to this self-examination falls into three circles …

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.3

threecircles

Prolegomena to theology normally explain the distinction and inter-relation of the various theological sub-disciplines. Barth offers a rather strange image of three overlapping circles, where the circles overlap so extensively that the centre of each circle lies within the overlap of all three.

The circles represent biblical, dogmatic and pastoral theology – covering, respectively, biblical exegesis examining the sources of the church’s speech about God, the coherent ordering of the content of the church’s speech about God, and some kind of reflection on the practical impact of the church’s speech. He explains that it is ‘as well neither to affirm nor to construct a systematic centre’ (4) governing all three.

The nature of the third of Barth’s circles (pastoral theology) isn’t very clear to me from what he says here – but I think I can grasp the general point by considering the relation of biblical and dogmatic theology.

Biblical theology is the discipline of examining the scriptures insofar as they are read by the church for the sake of their object, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It is governed by the order and flow of the texts that it reads, however much it includes abstractions and detours that step back from the text for some kind of overview – and its practitioners might rightly be rather suspicious of such overviews, to the extent that they lose touch with the cut and thrust of the text.

Dogmatic theology, on the other hand, treats the content of the church’s scripture-governed speech about God as a whole, and asks how the many claims involved are ordered – how what the church says in one place relates to what it says in another, what the limits are of its claims, and so on. It is governed by the way the topics of the church’s speech hang together – its ordering is conceptual – however much it might include detours and experiments that pursue the order of one of the biblical texts in play in a given question.

As such, biblical theology and dogmatic theology are disciplines with their own integrity. Within biblical theology, dogmatic theology must appear as an interruption, even a distraction – a useful and important abstraction, perhaps, but one that risks losing touch with the order of the scriptural texts. Within dogmatic theology, biblical theology must also appear as an interruption – a necessary and proper interruption, perhaps, but one that risks losing sight of the need to take responsibility for the church’s present speech about God as a whole, and attend to its interconnections.

There is no way of resolving this tension, because the object of theology is church practice insofar as it obeys scripture insofar as scripture speaks of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. There is, therefore, an instability to theological practice – a lack of a systematic ordering that would make it clear which of the sub-disciplines properly governed the others. Rather, there is quite properly an ongoing process of mutual adjustment, of sometimes irascible conversation between the sub-disciplines. And this coheres with the idea that theology can’t guarantee its own success: there is nowhere to stand (no ‘systematic centre’) from which to declare that any settlement achieved between biblical and dogmatic theologians could not have been otherwise.

 

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

Genes and education

‘Genetics outweighs teaching, Gove adviser tells his boss’, ran the Guardian headline.

Clearly, though, his boss isn’t listening.

Yes, there’s pretty good evidence of a sizeable genetic component in people’s ability to score well in IQ tests.  Do you know what that means?

It means people are different.

It means that pupils in our schools differ fundamentally, and not just because of the relative fecklessness of their parents, or the relative laziness of their teachers.

It means that if you insist on one narrow set of measures of success (and I don’t just mean IQ tests), you will inevitably be condemning many pupils to failure however nastily you berate their parents, however much you undermine the morale of their teachers.

We know increasing amounts about the ways in which genes influence people’s medical history.  That is making us realise that no ‘one size fits all’ prescription will do; that we’re going to need to go further in the direction of personalised, customised interventions to help people be as healthy as they can be.

So, if we’re discovering increasing amounts about the ways in which genes influence people’s educational history…

Reading the Church Dogmatics 5: Practice, Discipline and Judgment

… as it confesses God the Church also confesses both the humanity and the responsibility of its action.  It realises that it is exposed to fierce temptation as it speaks of God, and it realises that it must give an account to God for the way in which it speaks.  The first and last and decisive answer to this twofold compulsion consists in the fact that it rests content with the grace of the One whose strength is mighty in weakness.  But in so doing it recognises and takes up as an active Church the further human task of criticising and revising its speech about God.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.3

I said in my first post in this series that the subject matter of theology is the church insofar as the church speaks of God. It seems to me, at this point in my reading, that for Barth church practice speaks of God only insofar as it is a practice under discipline and a practice under judgment.

That is, it speaks of God only insofar as it points away from itself to standards by which it may be corrected, and is disciplined about applying those standards. Theology pursues this disciplined discrimination, and as such is a form of labour, a form of work, a form of discipline – and (in a sense to which we will return) a form of science‘.

But however perfectly theology might pursue this discipline, and however assiduously church practice might therefore become disciplined practice, its speaking truly of God would not be something guaranteed by that discipline, not something producible, not something that lies in its power. It would still be subject to the verdict of God upon its truthfulness – it would still stand under judgment.

Church practice stands under discipline as a way of acknowledging that it stands under judgment – as, perhaps, a sign of its situation under judgment. Its theological discipline can be a partial, fallible, participation in the enactment of that judgment – but it does not exhaust it, contain it or complete it.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 4: Theology and the Life of Faith

Theology guides the talk of the Church to the extent that it concretely reminds it that in all circumstances it is fallible human work which in the matter of relevance or irrelevance lies in the balance, and must be obedience to grace if it is to be well done.  Theology accompanies the utterance of the Church to the extent that it is itself no more than human ‘talk about God,’ so that with this talk it stands under the judgment that begins at the house of God and lives by the promise given to the Church.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.4

The framing for Barth’s initial definition of theology is pastoral or devotional. That is, its context is a picture of the individual’s and the church’s journey of faith. Attending to that pastoral or devotional framing is one way of making sense of the idea that theology’s subject matter is church practice – or the life of the believer – insofar as it stands under discipline and under judgment.

This is, perhaps, easiest to see if we focus on the ‘individual believer’ (3), if only because we tend to be more familiar with the language of devotion, of penitence and holiness, at this individual level.

If I am an individual believer, I am someone whose life speaks of God – however fallibly, weakly, vulnerably, and in ways ‘exposed to fierce temptation’ (3). I am called to speak of God truly – I am ‘responsible’, I ‘must give an account to God’ for the way in which I speak (3).

Any work that I undertake in the light of this responsibility, however, is secondary to the work of God who has already taken hold of me, and who is speaking through me: ‘The first and last and decisive answer … consists in the fact that [I rest] content with the grace of the One whose strength is mighty in weakness’ (3). The first and last and decisive answer is ‘justifying grace, which … alone can make good what man as such invariably does badly’ (4).

The labour of responsible reflection, of penitence and correction, of tending my ‘speech’ about God, rests securely on this foundation in two ways.

First, this labour of theology comes second. It is a part of my response to having already been taken hold of, having been made by God’s grace part of God’s speech about Godself. I may not already be obedient, my action may not already be wise and truthful speech about God – but, however imperfectly, I do acknowledge that I have a Saviour, and that I live under promise and judgment. My responsible reflection takes off from that acknowledgement, that pointing away – and my trust in what God has done is, to that extent at least, a trust in what God has done in me: a trust that I have been granted knowledge of the name of my Saviour, so that at least to that extent I point away from myself and in God’s direction. By the grace of God, I have been given somewhere to look.  That gift is the only reason why theology can, fundamentally, be a matter of ‘self-examination’ (4).

Second, the labour of responsible reflection proceeds in trust – trust that this labour will indeed make for truer speech about God, and that when it fails (as it will) God will not let go of me. There’s a fine balance here. This labour of reflection, of self-examination, is a serious responsibility. Yet this labour is not what decisively matters. I do it because I am called to do it, not because I am (or could be) sure of what it will achieve. It ‘lies in the balance’ as to its ‘relevance or irrelevance’ (4). By God’s grace, by his ‘strength … in weakness’, it will become a means by which God makes my life into truer speech – it will be a participation in God’s activity in me. (Participation? Yes, I can’t see how to avoid this language, even if Barth avoids it. Interestingly, the new Study Edition translates Barth’s quote from Augustine’s De doctrina rather freely to say ‘human participation must not cease’.) But, however responsibly I labour, I may in time be enabled to look back and see that I was working assiduously in the wrong direction, that I have been held by God only despite my misguided efforts. The participation of my efforts in God’s activity can’t in any way be produced or guaranteed by me.

Now re-read the last three paragraphs, but substitute ‘the community of believers’ for ‘individual believer’, ‘we’ for ‘I’, ‘us’ for ‘me’.

 

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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 3: Relationalism?

The Church … puts to itself the question of truth, i.e., it measures its action, its talk about God, against its being as the Church.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.4

One more go at this.  Elsewhere, I have written about Hans Frei’s interpretation of Barth’s break with liberalism.  In Frei’s account, the central conviction that Barth rejected in his liberal teachers’ theology was their ‘relationalism’: their conviction that theology begins with a given relation between a human being and God.  For a relationalist theologian, the basic datum that theology elaborates, and to which its claims are beholden – the basic reality that disciplines theological speech, even if theological speech can never be fully adequate to it – is some deep consciousness or awareness or feeling in which the human subject knows itself to be related to the absolute.  The basic datum is, to put it differently, ‘faith’ – but fides qua rather than fides quae: it is faith as the coming to the surface in our minds and lives of the deep relatedness to the absolute given in all human knowing and willing.  Theology knows this faith first of all, and only then knows human beings as the ones who have this faith, and God as the one to whom this faith relates them – the absolute that becomes present in this faith.  But it is this faith, this relation, that is the source and norm of relationalist theology (as Frei interprets it).

In Frei’s reading, Barth’s protest against liberalism was a protest against relationalism: God is not given in this relationship; God is Lord over this relationship; this relationship too stands under God’s judgment, and the task of theology is to know the God who is its judge, the God who is free over it, the God who is God.

Am I suggesting that the Barth of the Church Dogmatics fell into a new, ecclesial relationalism?  That the practice of the church became a given for him, and that theology can only measure its talk about God against this practice?

No, not at all.  Theology knows the practice of the church as a practice that points away from itself.  It knows it as a practice under discipline and under judgment – and as a practice that points to, but does not contain or control the source from which judgment comes.

 

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