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


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.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 2: Objectivity?

Theology follows the talk of the church to the extent that in its question as to the correctness of the utterance it does not measure it by an alien standard but by its own source and object.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.4

My previous post said that, for Barth, God is the ‘source and object’ against which theology measures the church.  It also said, however, that the subject matter of theology is the church insofar as the church speaks of God, or God only as the one who is spoken of in the church.  I can imagine that this sounds as though what I am giving with one hand, I am taking away with the other.

Yet what I have said does not yet tell us anything (either positive or negative) about the kind of objectivity, over against the church, possessed by this ‘source and object’ that the church points to.  The answer to that question depends on what the church points to, and on the way in which it points. Looking to the church’s action, and to the forms of confession, acknowledgement and obedience that it pursues, is the proper way to get a handle on this question of objectivity.

I’m pretty sure that we’ll be coming back to this point when we start looking at the place of Scripture in all this – but let me just draw one corollary from what I have just said.  Nothing of what I have said so far tells us what kind of objectivity over against the church, as source and norm, Scripture has.  Let me labour the point: the answer to that question about objectivity depends on what the church is pointing to when it points to scripture, and on the way in which the church points.  Looking to the church’s action, and to the forms of confession, acknowledgement and obedience it pursues, is the proper way to approach this question of scripture’s objectivity.  Where else would one stand in order to answer it?

Just as it is a false opposition to think one must say either that theology is about God or that it is about the church, so it is a false opposition to think that one is either serious about the objectivity of the standard against which the church should be measured or focused on the practices of self-criticism by which the church measures itself.


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

Reading the Church Dogmatics 1: Is Theology about God?

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1
§1 The Task of Dogmatics

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.

1. The Church, Theology, Science

… [The Church] recognises and takes up … [the] human task of criticising and revising its speech about God.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.3

What is theology’s subject matter? Is it the church, or is it God?

This is a false opposition. The subject matter of theology is the church insofar as the church speaks of God. And the subject matter of theology is God only as the one who is spoken of in the church.

Barth begins with three meanings of ‘theology’. First, it is ‘the simple testimony of faith’ (4) – the ‘action of each believer’ which ‘confesses God’ (3). Second, it is the church’s ‘specific action as a fellowship’, its ‘communal existence’ (3), its ‘service of God’ (4) which also ‘speaks about God’ (3). These first two are both aspects of the church’s speech about God – but ‘theology’ is also, third, the church’s ‘further human task of criticising and revising its speech about God’ (3).

This is, potentially, a misleading list, if one takes it as naming three distinct locations in which one might find speech about God: in individual believers, in the church’s communal life, and also among the theologians. Individual believers speak about God; the church in its life together speaks about God; and theologians speak about God? No. Rather, the third item on Barth’s list is logically different from the first two. It names a kind of feedback loop that helps keep the first two on track. The word ‘theology’ may have ‘its strictest and most proper sense’ in this third definition, but here that simply means its narrowest and most formal sense. Speech about God lives primarily in individual believers and in their life together, and theology as a critical discipline is wholly and entirely secondary to that.

Theology’s subject matter, the material on which it works, is therefore in the first place the lives of individual believers, and the church’s communal activities of ‘preaching’, ‘administration of the sacraments’, ‘worship’, ‘internal and external mission’, ‘works of love amongst the sick, the weak and those in jeopardy’ (3) – and all this as human action, as fallible, as vulnerable.

But, theology’s subject matter is all this human action only insofar as this action points away from itself, and speaks about its Lord. The life of the individual believer, considered from this vantage point, is a form of embodied speech – it is de divinitate … sermo, ‘discourse on divinity’ – a living sermon, if you like. And the life of the church together, similarly, is a form of communication – and not simply in its preaching, but in all its activity. The church, in the lives of individual believers and in its life together, speaks about God; it points to God as its ‘own source and object’ (4). (In more enigmatic language, Barth says that, in its thoroughly human action, the church speaks of and points to its true ‘being’ (4) or ‘reality’ (3) which ‘does not coincide with its action’ (3): it points away from itself, beyond itself.)

So, in a sense, theology’s subject matter is God – it is itself ‘human “talk about God”‘ (4) – but only insofar as God is spoken of in and by the church; the theologian does not measure the church’s speech against an object to which the theologian somehow has independent access.


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

Starting the Church Dogmatics

cd11From time to time on this blog, I have indulged in slow reading – working through a text in enough detail to make my comments longer than the original, stretching the reading over a period of months.  It’s the only thing I’ve really missed while I’ve been away from blogging – and it is the thing that brings me back now.  I am working (gradually) towards a book on the nature of Christian doctrine, and there are some texts I want to read slowly to help get my thinking going.  Offline, I spent much more time than I expected reading Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine (which is thirty years old next year!), and I have a list of other authors I need to spend time with.  But I have been thinking that, for one of them, it might be good to read slowly in public again.

So, this is the start of a new ‘Slow Reading’ series.  I’m going to read the very beginning of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1: §1 The Task of Dogmatics.  If all goes well, I might get further.  Ideally, I’d like to reach as far as §7, The Word of God, Dogma and Dogmatics – but I suspect that is rather too much to ask for.  So let’s just say I’m going to blog my way through §1 for now, and leave any other promises aside.  And, since Barth’s text is itself presented as a commentary on the short paragraphs with which each section begins, you could think of the whole of what follows as an extended – ridiculously extended – commentary on the following text:

§1 The Task of Dogmatics

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.

I’ll give page numbers from the old 1975 English edition, because they’re also given in the margins of the new Study Edition.  For the German, I’m using the first volume (1986) of the Studienausgabe.

One last thing: I’m no Barth scholar, and have no real aspirations in that direction.  I’m not reading this text with a mind sensitised by exposure to Barth’s other writings of this period, or alert to the difference between this and his earlier attempts at dogmatic prolegomena; I am not in a position to trace influences or development or contemporary debates.  I’m interested, rather, in what you might call a ‘plain sense’ reading, and in seeing where it takes my own thinking.  I’m hoping, though, that some of you who know Barth’s work much better than I do might pop up in the comments and help me see what I’m missing.


Click here for a list of the posts in this series so far.

Tidying Up 4: The Opening of Mark’s Gospel

Early in this blog’s life, I wrote a long series of posts on the opening of the Gospel of Mark.  The list below attempts to list them in some kind of coherent order – not chronological but thematic.  These posts work through the first few verses, up to and including Jesus’ baptism by John.  The discussion was at times rather laboured, and looking back at these posts I have rather mixed reactions – but here they are.  At some point, I hope to carry on.




  • Wordplay. My wordplay: In which I play with the connections of the word ‘arche’ – and then reflect about what I’m doing.
  • More wordplay. Does much the same with the word ‘euangelion’.
  • Yet more wordplay. The author’s wordplay: in which I think about what an author’s chosen words bring with them and make possible that the author can’t control.


  • Interrogative field. Reading the first line of Mark sets up an interrogative field for continued reading. A central question is about what it means for this to be news….
  • News. …news about Jesus.


Prophets and forerunners