Category Archives: Barth

Reading the Church Dogmatics 20: Barth’s sensibility

[T]he decision as to what is or is not true in dogmatics is always a matter of the divine election of grace.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 21.

So, I’ve come to the end (I think) of my posts on §1 of the Church Dogmatics – which is all that I originally promised to do.  The jury is still out on whether I’m going to carry on into §2…

Most of what I have read so far I have found very congenial – so much so that there must be a good chance that I am reading my own views into Barth’s prose.  The idea of dogmatics as a reparative discipline that begins in media res, that stands under discipline and under judgment, that is determined by attention to the criterion to which the church points, its Lord – all that makes sense to me, and is what I would want to say of myself, to the extent that I too am a dogmatic or doctrinal theologian.

And yet – there’s something less easily assimilable here, for me.  I don’t think I can put it any more precisely than to say that Barth’s whole conception of dogmatics is embedded within a certain spirituality – by which I mean that it is embedded within a certain deeply felt construal of the nature of the Christian life, of what the church is about.  That construal is focused on election and assurance, on divine decision, the spoken promise, and our response in trust.  I don’t mean to say that this spirituality is prior to Barth’s dogmatic exploration, simply that there is a coherence between his conception of dogmatics and this theological sensibility.  Barth’s dogmatics is one part of a settlement that has this overall flavour to it.

It is, I suggest, precisely because Barth’s conception of dogmatics is so thoroughly, so seamlessly embedded in this spirituality that he can take it as read that proclamation of the Word is the heart of the life of the church, and that the content of the preaching of God’s promise in Jesus Christ is the primary subject matter of dogmatics.  And so it is only because his conception of dogmatics is so deeply embedded in this particular Protestant spirituality, this particular flavour of soteriological imagination, that he can practice the relative abstraction of content that gives his work its dogmatic character.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing.  But I think I do need to ask what happens if one is operating with a different spirituality, a different soteriological imagination, a different church?  Dogmatics, after all, if it begins in media res, cannot begin within an invented church, an ideal church constructed from first principles.  Precisely if I am to follow along the dogmatic path Barth has set out here, I have to take seriously this question about the difference between my own ecclesial context and his.  And in my context, I don’t think I can pursue a dogmatics in which proclamation can have quite such an untroubled supremacy, in which the doctrine of the Word is the obvious starting point for dogmatic reflection – or a form of dogmatics in which there can be quite so clear an abstraction of conceptual content from ecclesial practice.


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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 19: Depending on Grace

Hence, if we say that dogmatics presupposes faith . . . we say that at every step and with every statement it presupposes the free grace of God which may at any time be given or refused as the object and meaning of this human action. It always rests with God and not with us whether our hearing is real hearing and our obedience real obedience, whether our dogmatics is blessed and sanctified as knowledge of the true content of Christian utterances or whether it is idle speculation.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.18

I remember my bewilderment the first time I read this.  Was Barth saying that one day God might decide that the Nicene Creed was no longer going to be true, and another day decide to go the whole hog and decide that all statements about God being triune are wrong? Was Barth imagining a shape-shifting God, arbitrary and capricious, who each morning decides what will be true of him?

We could only take this to be Barth’s meaning here if we understood the task of dogmatics to be the production of accurate descriptions of God – of texts that, in and of themselves, successfully refer or correspond to God. If that were the case, a claim about the truth of dogmatics would be a claim about a relationship between the text, or the text’s content, and God.  But dogmatics doesn’t deal with descriptions in the abstract; it deals with the church’s speech – the church’s life as its speech.

The fundamental task of dogmatics is to ensure that the church in all its speech places its trust in God and not in itself.  But the same words that, spoken yesterday, were a lively protest against some way in which the church has been trusting itself might today have hardened to become part of our self-protection.  Think of my previous two posts (here and here).  Yesterday’s necessary protest against a focus on religious feeling, a focus that had placed the church in judgment over the gospel, might become today’s failure to allow the whole person to be caught up in response to the gospel – and might conspire in making us theologians feel like we are capable of an intellectual mastery of that gospel.

This is why Barth, a little earlier, could say that ‘dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’ (16).  In dogmatics, identical repetition of what we have heard is always in danger of being a betrayal of what we have heard.

The prayer that accompanies dogmatics is, therefore, not prayer to a capricious God, asking that today that God might deign to smile on our descriptions.  Nor is it a prayer for arbitrary and fickle inspiration – a miraculous ability to guess today’s divine password.  It is, rather, a prayer to be shown – and to be shown truly, by the one who sees truly – where our trust, our faith, has curved in on itself, even when we have not changed our words.  It is, in other words, a prayer to hear the judgment under which we stand, and be shown how to respond.

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

Surprising Emotional Sense

Frances Spufford’s book Unapologetic (subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, and published by Faber and Faber in 2012) is wonderful.

My paperback copy has a puff from John Gray on the front, saying that it is ‘a rare book, a book that carries conviction by being honest all the way through’, and that seems about right to me – though I recognise that I might be being swayed by the deep, almost eery familiarity of the voice in which it is written. One of Spufford’s earlier books, the equally (though differently) wonderful The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading (Faber and Faber, 2002) perhaps explains why: it shows that he and I grew up reading many of the same things (at least until our teens), captivated by the same stories and the same worlds. One recurrent emotion I had when reading Unapologetic was therefore jealousy: I would finish a passage and think, ‘Damn, I wish I’d written that – and I would have done, too, if it hadn’t been for your peskily slipping in first.’

There is one central respect, though, in which the book charts territory unfamiliar to me. And it is not exactly a minor facet of the book. It is the very fact that Spufford explores the sense that Christianity makes, the sense that Christian belief and practice make, by focusing on the patterns of Christian feeling, of sensibility, of emotional experience.

Now, I grew up in a charismatic church; I was (and in some strangely metabolised ways still am) a charismatic. The idea that faith was meant to be emotionally involving, sometimes emotionally overwhelming, was axiomatic for me and for those around me. But I have since been trained in forms of theological thinking and writing that don’t habitually look in this direction.

On the one hand, I work in the shadow of Karl Barth. Barth was resolute in his insistence that the truth of the Gospel is not determined by whether or not it makes emotional sense to us. Faced with the generation of his theological teachers lining up in support of the Kaiser’s aims in the First World War, and justifying that support, at least in part, on the grounds of the deep emotional sense that it made – the strange stirring of their spirit, the deepening of their prayer – Barth barked ‘No!’ We cannot (as I was saying in my previous post) use the ability to satisfy us emotionally as a criterion for the success of our interpretations of God’s Word. That Word can and does come to overthrow, to cast down, to devastate. For all we know, the expectations and habits of our emotional life may need to be derailed and led to disaster before we are in a position to hear God’s ‘Yes!’ And although Barth insisted that the whole of our existence, intellectual and emotional, is caught up in this process, in both the No and the Yes, his tendency was to focus not on what happens in us but on the Word that brings it about. And so those of us theologians who bob about in his wake have tended to be nervous of a renewed focus on the emotional sense that Christianity makes, for fear of making that emotional sense once again the criterion for the Word, rather than allowing the Word to be the criterion for the emotional sense.

On the other hand, I work in the (shorter) shadow of George Lindbeck. Lindbeck (for complex reasons that I have had fun exploring elsewhere) spoke out against what he called ‘experiential expressivism’: the idea that what is basic about Christianity, what provides its continuity, is a flow of deep religious experience – such that the doctrines, the appropriate interpretations of the scriptures, the institutional forms of Christianity should all be understood as attempts to express that experience and allow it to shape our whole existence. Lindbeck spoke in particular against the idea that the religious experience in question is one flavour, one culturally particularised form, of a universal human possibility – such that our thinking about Christianity must reckon with a fundamental hierarchy running from universal human religious experience at its pinnacle, down through that experience’s particularised cultural forms in the various religions, and so on down to the doctrines, practices and institutions in which that experience is inadequately represented. Lindbeck argued, instead, that on the whole the practices and doctrines of Christianity shape a distinctive landscape of religious experience, and that it is a mistake to structure our accounts of Christianity around the idea of a common pattern of human religious experience. The only way to understand Christianity is by way of thick description of its particularity, not by establishing an account of universal human possibilities first and turning to their particular actualisation in Christianity second. And, once again, although this account is one in which ‘experience’ still features, the tendency for those of us floating along behind Lindbeck has been to place our focus elsewhere.

(And, yes, of course there are exceptions and countervailing tendencies – in Barth and amongst Barth followers, and in Lindbeck and amongst his followers – to this tendency to face away from ‘experience’, from affect. Lindbeck’s colleague and postliberal co-agitator Hans Frei, for instance, turned in the last years of his life to thinking about religious ‘sensibility’, and the forms of description appropriate to it. But I digress.)

Spufford’s book, it seems to me, does not need to be cut by any Barthian or Lindbeckian censor. It is, precisely, a thick description of a learnt pattern of experience, a discovered landscape of emotional sense. Spufford does not say, ‘You, dear reader, already feel in such and such way; do you not see how you could, with an extra push, come to feel in this Christian way too? In fact, do you not see how, deep down, you already do feel this way?’ His book is (look at the cover!) not an apologia. Rather, it is an invitation to the reader to explore and to understand the landscape of his, Spufford’s, Christian experience, and to see what sense it makes, how it hangs together.

Yes, Spufford is concerned to explain how this way of making emotional sense is more interesting and complex than his readers’ caricatures may have allowed them to recognise; yes, he is concerned to say ‘Come on in, the water’s – well – bracing!’. But that is no different from the work another writer might do to display the internal intellectual sense that Christianity makes: the ways in which its ideas hang together. The latter author might, of course, make use of all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of understanding that he assumes his readers already have, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new world of sense will be required of those who do become Christian. So, too, Spufford makes all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of emotion that he guesses might make sense to his readers, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated by these means either, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new emotional landscape will be required of those who do become Christian.

You can learn a new pattern of thinking, and be surprised by the sense it makes. In much the same way, you can as a Christian learn to make new emotional sense of the world, and be surprised by the sense it makes. That you can feel this Christian way, that I can feel this Christian way, is not evidence, any more than the fact that I have learnt to say the creeds with confidence is evidence. To think of it as evidence is to make a category error. I don’t think Spufford is saying (or I don’t think he should be saying) that the patterns of feeling he describes might be a more-or-less direct sensation of the divine, but might not, and that there’s no way of saying for sure. Rather, he is (or should) be saying that this way of feeling, of making emotional sense, is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that we Christians believe that this way of making emotional sense speaks truly – just as we believe that saying ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth’ is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that it too speaks truly. We’re not dealing with evidence, but with a lived response, a learnt response to the gospel.

So, when Spufford describes his experience in prayer in church, as he introduces his discussion of God, I take that as a route towards understanding something of what the word ‘God’ means – just as learning to say ‘thank you’ in prayer, learning to sing praises, and learning to declaim the creeds are such routes. We learn what the word ‘God’ means by being involved in these Christian habits and discourses and patterns of feeling, and in the processes of learning to explore them more deeply. And we learn more deeply the more the whole of us is caught up in these processes.

And, yes, as Barth would insist: our learning takes place under discipline, and it takes place under judgment – but that’s a whole other discussion, and not one that need make me any less grateful for Spufford’s book.


Edited to clarify a couple of phrases and remove some typos.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 18: Dogmatics as an Act of Faith

[D]ogmatics is quite impossible except as an act of faith, in the determination of human action by listening to Jesus Christ and as obedience to him. Without faith it would be irrelevant and meaningless.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 17.

We’ve reached the third subsection of this first article of the Church Dogmatics on ‘The Task of Dogmatics’.  The first subsection, ‘The Church, Theology, Science’, established all the key themes that we have been exploring so far: theology as a reparative activity in the midst of the life of the church, under discipline and under judgment.

The second, ‘Dogmatics as Enquiry’, discussed in more depth the possibility and necessity of Dogmatics as a form of human enquiry: it is possible because God has indeed made Godself known; and it is necessary because our reception of or involvement in that knowledge is always questionable. That subsection, in other words, worked from the certainty of God’s revelation to the unavoidably human labour of dogmatic enquiry.

The third subsection, ‘Dogmatics as an Act of Faith’, treads the same path as the second, but backwards.  That is, it begins with Dogmatics as ‘a part of the work of human knowledge’ (p. 17), a work that requires ‘attentiveness and concentration, . . . understanding and appraisal’ – but then asks what it means for this labour to be completely shaped (‘determined’) by the way in which God has made Godself known.

In one sense, this third subsection adds nothing new.  To say that Dogmatics is an act of faith is to say no more than that it takes place under discipline and under judgment.  That is, it demands ‘obedience to the call of Christ’ – it demands the discipline of discipleship, of resolving to know nothing but Christ and hum crucified, of bringing all our speech and action again and again to the foot of the cross.  And it demands the acknowledgement that truthfulness is not in our hands, that ‘It always rests with God and not with us whether our hearing is real hearing and our obedience real obedience’ (p. 18), because our apprehension of Christ is always questionable.  To say that Dogmatics is an act of faith is to say again that its criterion is Jesus Christ, and its success in conforming to that criterion is not in its own hands.

Yet Barth runs through this argument one more time in order to make a specific point.  Dogmaticians have to take their position under discipline and under judgment – the position in which dogmatics is both possible and necessary – as the whole determination of what they do.  That’s what it means to do Dogmatics – and to talk about Dogmatics, Barth has to talk about the dogmaticians commitment to that discipline and their acknowledgement of that judgment.  And yet – the nature and quality of that commitment and acknowledgement must not themselves be taken as the criterion for the truth of what the dogmatician says.  That commitment and acknowledgment must not themselves move to centre stage.

A dogmatic statement is not true because of the depth of the commitment of the dogmatician. It is not true because it makes deep existential sense to the dogmatician. It is not true because it resonates in a heart shaped by discipline and open to judgment.  It is true if and only if it conforms to Jesus Christ – and the dogmatician’s commitment is precisely to take that alone as his or her criterion.

Barth says that he or she must do this ‘for better or for worse’ (p. 18), which I take in this context to mean that he or she must follow this criterion even if it leads to dogmatic claims that make less existential sense, that resonate less clearly in the echo-chamber of her heart, that make deep existential commitment harder and drier.  We must not, says Barth, make ‘the sensus, the human determination, the experience and attitude of the knowing subject’ into ‘the criterion of theological knowledge’ (p. 19).

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

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.


Reading the Church Dogmatics 16: Reparative Logic

Dogmatics is possible only as theologia crucis, in the act of obedience which is certain in faith, but which for this very reason is humble, always being thrown back to the beginning and having to make a fresh start.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 14.

‘[B]eing thrown back to the beginning’ cannot mean that dogmatics involves clearing the table of all our inherited clutter, so as to start again with a clear and distinct foundation securely in our grasp.  In the next section of small print, Barth is going to expand on the point he makes here by expounding Augustine’s idea that ‘credere must precede intelligere‘ – that dogmatics seeks to explore and order what it has received; after that he will deny that dogmatics can take the dogmas of the creeds as its inviolable starting points, or that its real concern is ‘merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible’ (p.16).  This ‘back to the beginning’ is not a denial of the place of dogmatics ‘in media res‘, discussed in an earlier post, because the ‘beginning’ in question is not where we began – the original simplicity of our faith, or our initial religious experience, or our secure possession of the scriptures.  The beginning is Christ, and to be thrown back to the beginning is to be called to test all our faith against the criterion to which our faith points.

The logic here is reparative (to borrow some language from Peter Ochs via Nick Adams).  That is, Barth is not operating with a logic that starts from scratch, or starts from epistemologically secure foundations. For such a ‘from scratch’ logic, the existing network of our understanding can be dismantled until all that is left is the secure starting-point. The ‘start from scratch’ dogmatician can turn his or her back on the tradition – the ongoing history of negotiation – that precedes him or her, in order to begin again, with zealous purity.

With a reparative logic, however, the dogmatician begins (and can only begin) with what is in front of him or her, and then explores the level and kind of alterations that might be required in order to solve the problems that arise from within it – the ways in which, by pointing to its source, it contradicts itself or calls itself into question. The alterations that result might end up being quite small-scale – or they might eventually require rather dramatic reworking of the whole landscape of one’s belief. They may in time amount to transformations so thoroughgoing as to fool a casual observer into thinking that the dogmatician has indeed adopted the ‘start from scratch’ strategy, after all. A reparative approach, however, remains fundamentally different in its approach from a ‘start from scratch’ approach.   The dogmatician is repairing a raft on which he or she is floating – where the materials available to plug the leaks, and the tools that he or she can use to manipulate those materials, all have to be prised from the raft itself.

Barth’s line about being ‘thrown back to the beginning’ means, I think, both that dogmatics always turns to measure the church’s present language against the source to which it points, and that there is no telling in advance how deep the resulting repair might be.  Nothing, in principle, is ‘withdrawn from further enquiry’ (p.15).


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

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.

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.