Author Archives: Mike Higton

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




Tidying Up 3: Rowan Williams

And, finally (for now), a directory to some of the material on Rowan Williams on this blog – my series on ‘The Body’s Grace’ and my bibliographical effort.

Rowan Williams Bibliography

1 Jul 2008, 1972–1979
4 Jul 2008, 1980–1985
5 Jul 2008, 1986–1990
5 Jul 2008, 1991–1995
7 Jul 2008, 1996–2000
7 Jul 2008, 2001–2003
7 Jul 2008, 2004–2005
7 Jul 2008, Acknowledgements

On Rowan Williams, ‘The Body’s Grace’

24 Jul 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (1): God’s Command
24 Jul 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (2): The Gospel
29 Jul 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (3): Sex and Sanctification
30 Jul 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (4): Thomas Nagel, Handmaid
31 Jul 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (5): Black, White and Grey
14 Aug 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (6): Not Legalist but Rigorist?
22 Aug 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (7): Light in the Darkness
23 Aug 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (8): Love, Faithfulness, Faith
24 Aug 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (9): Homosexuality
27 Aug 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (10): Biblical Foundations
5 Sep 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (11): Reading Romans 1
23 Sep 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (12): Sex and the Church
7 Dec 2008, On “The Body’s Grace” (13): Concluding Questions

Tidying Up 2: Aquinas’ Five Ways

And here is another directory: to my posts on Aquinas’ Five Ways.

2 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 1. Putting the Ways in Context
2 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 2. Who is Aquinas Trying to Convince?
3 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 3. The Emptiness of the Ways
4 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 4. The Intelligibility of the World
4 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 5. Using Aristotle
4 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 6. The First Way
4 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 7. The Second Way
5 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 8. The Third Way
5 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 9. The Fourth Way
6 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 10. The Fifth Way
6 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 11. ‘This is What Everybody Understands By God’?
9 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 12. The Ways to Mystery
13 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 13. The Five Ways as Foundation
13 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 14. Absolute Dependence
13 Mar 2008, Reading the Five Ways 15. On Not Following Aquinas
29 Jul 2008, Reading the Five Ways 16

Tidying Up 1: The God Delusion

I’ve been thinking of re-opening this blog after a long, long pause. I therefore found myself clicking idly through old posts – and realised how hard it is to read in order the long post-sequences that make up the majority of the blog’s content. (And yes, I know that is because this is not really what blogs are for.) So here is a directory to the long series of posts on Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion. The series never finished (because I got bored); coverage was widely uneven (as the list below demonstrates); but some of it might still be interesting.

Introductory post:
Sun 2 Sep 2007, The God Delusion

Ch.1, §1
2 Sep 2007, Quasi-mysticism
3 Sep 2007, Darwinian Grandeur
3 Sep 2007, Sagan on Religion
5 Sep 2007, The Supernaturalist God
6 Sep 2007, Einsteinian Religion
7 Sep 2007, Non-Supernaturalist Theology
8 Sep 2007, Sleight of Hand
8 Sep 2007, Naturalism
5 Dec 2007, Teleology
11 Sep 2007, Is Theology a Subject
11 Sep 2007, ‘The Weakness of the Religious Mind’
13 Sep 2007, Folk Religion
16 Sep 2007, Praying to the Law of Gravity

18 Sep 2007, Interim Verdict: On The God Delusion, Ch.1, §1.

Ch.1, §2
18 Sep 2007, Respecting Religion
19 Sep 2007, Holiness and Argument
20 Sep 2007, Ideas and Identity
21 Sep 2007, Religious Conflict
22 Sep 2007, Religious Media
29 Sep 2007, Argument
5 Dec 2007, The Right to Freedom of Religion
7 Dec 2007, Cartoon Analysis

Verdict on chapter 1
24 Sep 2007, Irrational Christianity
8 Dec 2007, Interim Verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.1
19 Mar 2008, Pantheism and Metaphor

Ch.2, Introduction
11 Dec 2007, The God of the Old Testament
15 Dec 2007, The Heart of the Matter
16 Dec 2007, Creation and Explanation
20 May 2008, Essentialist Progression

Ch.2, §1
19 Dec 2007, Polytheism
20 Dec 2007, Monotheistic Chauvinism
20 Dec 2007, Charity Law
20 Dec 2007, Hinduism
21 Dec 2007, Dawkins on the Trinity
22 Dec 2007, Trinity and Rationality
23 Dec 2007, Splitting Hairs
3 Jan 2008, Saints

Remainder of ch.2
9 Jan 2008, Stop It, It’s Silly
25 Jan 2008, Which God?
28 Jan 2008, Theologians and Cosmologists
28 Jan 2008, Richard Swinburne
29 Jan 2008, Miracles and the Virgin Birth
19 Feb 2008, On Being Sophisticated
21 Feb 2008, On Being Dim-Witted
23 Feb 2008, The Great Prayer Experiment

24 Feb 2008, Interim Verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.2

Some general points
20 Jan 2008, The God Hypothesis
17 Feb 2008, Why Bother?
24 Feb 2008, Disillusionment

Ch. 3
25 Feb 2008, Dawkins on Aquinas
18 Mar 2008, Arguments for God’s Existence
18 Mar 2008, Dawkins on Anselm

5 Apr 2008, Interim Conclusion on The God Delusion, ch.3

Ch. 4
6 Apr 2008, Cutting the Taproot: The God Delusion, ch.4
20 May 2008, Creation and Explanation, again

Hans Frei papers

A while ago, I made a number of transcripts of materials from the Hans Frei archive at Yale Divinity School available online, at their library website. Reorganisations at that site have made it difficult to find the papers now, so I’ve put up a set on my own pages: Hans W. Frei, Unpublished Pieces: Transcripts from the Yale Divinity School archive. The PDF of the complete collection is a 200 page book, so we’re talking quite a lot of material.

To whet your appetite, here’s the contents page:

I Theological Reflections

1. Analogy and the Spirit in the Theology of Karl Barth
2. Scripture as Realistic Narrative
3. On Interpreting the Christian Story
4. Historical Reference and the Gospels
5. The Specificity of Reference
6. History, Salvation-History, and Typology
7. God’s Patience and Our Work
8. On the Thirty-Nine Articles
9. Theological Hermeneutics

II Historical Investigations

10. Religious Transformation in the later Eighteenth Century
11. Herder
12. The Formation of German Religious Thought in the Passage from Enlightenment to Romanticism
13. Contemporary Christian Thought

III Reviews and Book Notes

14. Review of Wendelgard von Staden’s Darkness over the Valley
15. Notes on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis

There are also a couple of extras on the website, not included in the pdf, including a letter from Frei to Gary Comstock in 1984, explaining why he is not a ‘pure narrativist’ of any kind.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (13): Concluding Questions

I’m sorry that the pressures of an unexpectedly full and fraught academic term have completely derailed my blogging. I imagine that any momentum left in the readers of this series on Williams has vanished just as surely as has the momentum of the writer. Still, there’s a job to finish, and it only needs one post to do it – so here it is.

I simply want to end with a series of five questions with which this exploration has left me.

  1. I can’t help wondering whether the Nagelesque description of sexual desire, whilst it works well for the situation he describes in his paper – the initial awakening and recognition of such desire, might have less direct purchase on the long term of an ordinary sexual relationship. There is at least a job to be done in showing how this kind of description can do justice not just to the agonic and the vulnerable in sexual relationships, but to the friendly, the funny, the sweet and touching, the pleasurable and the uncomplicated.
  2. There’s a cousin to that first question. We live in a culture in which we regularly meet the claim that sexual activity can truly be casual – i.e., precisely the claim that sexual activity can take place without the complex of emotional involvement that Williams and Nagel describe. Clearly, one of the ways of speaking to this culture that ‘The Body’s grace’ holds out to us is the message that there is so much more to be discovered in the context of mutuality, faithfulness and faith. I find myself wondering, however, about the extent to which the agonic tinge of Williams’ descriptions of sex means that this call necessarily comes wrapped in the initial message, ‘You’re not really having any fun, are you?’ And I wonder how truthful and effective that is.
  3. My third question is whether the sexual ethic set out in ‘The Body’s Grace’ hasn’t focused down too closely on the couple alone. What happens if, recognising that a sexual relationship is not simply an encounter between two independent individuals, we bring families, friends, rivals, and communities back into the picture?
  4. The sexual ethic set out in ‘The Body’s Grace’ calls for processes of attentiveness and discernment, looking at the problems of power and manipulation that hover around sexual relationships. It is not clear, however, who is to do that discerning, in what contexts, and on what scale. Given the habit urgent desire has of clouding delicate discernment, I take it that we’re talking about more than an on-the-spot reflection by the protagonists – but what more? What ecology of pastoral process might ‘The Body’s Grace’ call for – from individual reflection via the counselling of particular couples in their specific situation through to public teaching from the pulpit?
  5. Lastly, I worry about the question of Scripture. I am not saying that Williams’ position needs to be more scriptural (I think it is already formed by deep engagement with Scripture). But – for the sake of recognition, for the sake of the conversation – it needs to display its Scriptural rootedness at greater length (despite all the undoubted difficulties of doing so adequately). It needs to take it for granted less ¬– not in order to be captured by some naïve game of knockdown proof or disproof, but in order to show more clearly the forms of obedience by which it is shaped.

‘The Body’s Grace’ is simply one lecture. However interesting its vision, however provoking its arguments, it is at best a single contribution to a conversation that has much more territory to explore. Any hagiographic approach that suggests that this lecture somehow gets Christians sexual ethics, and that the rest is simply a matter of application, would be a betrayal of the wider ecclesial vision with which the lecture itself coheres. I’ve dallied here long enough; it’s time to move on.