Monthly Archives: October 2013

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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