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.

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