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.

8 Thoughts on “Reading the Church Dogmatics 7: Content

  1. What does one do if one thinks that this simply isn’t possible, that this is demonstrated by the existing systematic theologies, and that those who attempt this are deluding themselves?

  2. Mike Higton on October 21, 2013 at 11:29 pm said:

    Well, if one does think that, one should probably abandon the attempt as quickly as possible. I guess one would also want to stop using creeds (in worship or elsewhere). And, while one was at it, abandon all pretence that there one can meaningfully speak about topics like ‘Christology’, or ‘Salvation’, or ‘God’.

  3. Really? Why can’t these things be part of biblical theology, rather than systematics, as per your earlier post? The Creeds look like a pretty good hermeneutical key to reading the NT to me…

  4. Mike Higton on October 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm said:

    Because all I am talking about is ‘an ability to gather, and in that sense to order, the diverse materials investigated by biblical theology …. to elaborate and elucidate the ordering and connection of these materials’. So, once you start asking questions about how what one text says about God hangs together with what another text says about God, and where you might appeal to resolve apparent conflicts, and whether you might need to make distinctions that aren’t explicit in the text in order to answer these questions, you’re treating ‘content’ in the sense I’m discussing.

    Don’t worry, I’m not claiming that those who self-identify as biblical theologians don’t actually do this! I’m simply trying to understand what might be at stake in Barth’s claim to be focusing on ‘content’ (as opposed to basis or goal).

  5. Yes, I see that…and in those terms would want to be a theologian.

    But it seems to me that in a lot of theology there is something more (and more epistemologically developed) going on. To slightly parody the process, various theologians build substantial theological edifices which move quite a way from the biblical theological project, and then a lot of us spend not a little time debating the relative merits of these edifices.

    There feels to be a parallel (though culturally very distinct) process going on amongst the ultra-conservative evangelicals, particularly in the States, in the development of their ‘Systematic Theologies.’

    In both cases, it seems to be assumed that the epistemic goal is to move away from Scripture, and to achieve a theological system. Truth is found in this system, and Scripture is a means to this end.

    I think I would want to argue the converse, that these theologies need to function as a way of straightening our thinking so that we can then read Scripture aright. So theology leads to scripture, rather than Scripture leading to theology.

    Does that make sense?

  6. Mike Higton on October 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm said:

    Ah, then I think we might be able to make common cause, and band together. (Think Avengers Assemble, as long as I get to be the Hulk.) So, I recently wrote:

    ‘Doctrine is … a set of acknowledged constraints upon the reading of scripture – a set of rules for reading that have emerged from the practice of such reading and that shape its continuation. Christological doctrine, for example, … [is] just such a set of rules for reading – a set of constraints guiding Christian readers into a more penetrating reading of the gospels, for the sake of their conformity to Christ. Christological doctrines teach Christians, for instance, to read the gospels in such a way as to acknowledge who the acting subject is when they read of the actions and passions of the man Jesus of Nazareth. One has not understood Chalcedonian doctrine well when one has learnt to manipulate the conceptual machinery of natures and persons that it sets into motion; one has understood Chalcedonian doctrine well when one has begun learning how it teaches one to read pronouns and active verbs in the gospels, how to read statements of Christ’s weakness alongside statements of his power, how to read claims about our sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection – and one is Chalcedonian when those practices of reading have become habitual shapes in one’s continuous, ever-repeated practices of devout reading.

    ‘These practices of reading are not primarily solutions to problems in the text, as if their adoption allows a relaxation in attention to the difficult ways that the words run; they are disciplines by which one’s nose is held against the grindstone of the text…’


  7. Ah, so you are sound after all! I will be interested to see the responses to this article, not least because I suspect there are many theologians who disagree with you.

    Do you in the article make clear that the doctrines that the acknowledged constraints in how we read the text have emerged from the text itself, and so are the ‘return’ leg of the hermeneutical circle/spiral?

    (Just asking more questions to postpone the ‘love in’)

  8. (and do you have a pair of Hulk hands?)

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