The Church, Theology, Science

It hasn’t taken many pages of the first book Church Dogmatics to realize that reading Barth will be many different types of education for me. First, in order to understand what he is saying (exegesis) I am going to have to learn, at least in an introductory manner, his partners-in-dialogue (Brunner, Tillman, etc.). Second, even though this is a book in English (a trans.) it is not the English that I have ever read; many a sentence is incomprehensible upon the first reading. (I had the same experience when I first began to read Douglas Campbell but eventually I got used to it.) Finally, many words are used in different ways then I currently use them. I’ll have to be careful about that.

Initially I was a bit taken back by Barth’s definition of dogmatics which I held to be essentially what I know as systematics. He says,

“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.”

Already I am beginning to see that Barth had a very different view on what dogmatics is, it seems, that he understands this discipline to be more about God than about repackaging the Scriptural teaching about certain doctrines. This distinction though is critical for Barth because from the very beginning he limits the power of dogmatics by saying that it is “talk about God” and not statements about who God is.

This sounds great to my ears because it inserts a huge amount of humility into the process. He is allowing the Church to have a distinct and true perspective on God but, it is only, speech about God. Also, I must admit, I have always concieved dogmatics (systematics?) as being distilled teaching of the Scriptures and not speech about God. So I guess my first question is, “When Barth speaks about dogmatics is he speaking of what we call systematics?”

The other thing that struck me as interesting from the first section is Barth’s assertion that theology is not the only science that can speak (or instruct) about God. Here is the quote,

“theology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors. Nor does it control a basis of knowledge which might not find actualization in other sciences. Nor does it know an object of inquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences. Only by failing to recognize the actualization of revelation, the possibility of grace and therefore its own nature, could it possibly make any such claim.”

Honestly, this assertion startled me, actually, almost jarred me. Now I know Barth has a (rightful) disgust for Natural Theology so how can he say that theology, which is the only science based on Revelation (right?), is not the only science that can “uncover” things about God? Or am I wrong to think that is what he meant by saying, “Nor does it know an object of inquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences?”

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6 Responses to The Church, Theology, Science

  1. Thom says:

    Daniel, I thoroughly agree with your observations about the strangeness of Barth’s vocabulary and the sense of alienation that comes from intruding into his ongoing conversation with unseen and often unknown interlocutors. I often get his meaning intuitively long before I understand how it was grammatically arrived. And some sentences are impenetrable. As you say, you had this experience with Douglas Campbell. My experience was with a Hegel reader a few years back. In situations like that, where you know without knowing how you know, I always wonder whether that dissonance is not a sign of discipleship. Whether that hiatus of knowing isn’t what it feels like to be in the process of mental formation. And Barth himself went through this with Romans early in his life, correct?

    I’m not sure I follow the distinction you are making in the dogmatics versus systematics section of your post. Barth is saying that he is not out to proof text the Bible; that theology is not doctrine presented in a more orderly fashion so that we can dispense with the irritating hassle of interpreting from narrative. But isn’t God talk still a confession of who God is?

    Finally, the section you highlight, the “special keys” section. I’m going to blog about this in greater detail when I finish this week’s reading. This direction feels to me as if Barth is offering theology on the altar of post-enlightenment scientism. It feels as if because the early twentieth century shoved its epistemology under the cast iron lid of the scientific method now theologians had better do the same or risk losing paying jobs at universities around the world–as if you’d better have the yellow star “scientific” on your lapel or you will not be allowed to speak, and so theologians unhesitatingly pin it there, draw their salaries, and feel relieved. I’m being too harsh here, and no doubt it is I who do not understand and Barth who understands all too well. Again, I’m hoping to work through this to a greater degree in my own posted comments on 1.1.

    Anyway, enjoyed your post. Glad to be reading the CD along with you.

    • Thanks for the comment. I am eager to hear more on the “special keys” stuff since I struggled to fit this into his broader emphasis (that I know he has from other things I have read) on the necessity for special revelation.

      As for the “God talk” you may be right. I get this feeling though that he is taking a circuitous route in saying what he want for some reason that is not plainly stated yet. It is like he wants to say it is not the current generations task to say what has already been said in a new way but maybe, they have to say something “new.” Maybe I am reading to much into this.

      Look forward to getting to know you and learning from your insights,

  2. Thom says:

    Daniel, I put up something last night on in-fraction. Having puzzled over what Barth is trying to do with the word science, I think the best term might be “apologetics.” It seems he is trying to show “knowledge” (scientific materialism) the way to wisdom (theology as a holy science). Put another way, I think he may be trying to plant a pulpit in the reductionist soil of the public square. I’d like to go back and read through that section again with the word “preaching” or “proclamation” in mind. Anyway, would appreciate your comments on my post. Thanks.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Disclaimer: Everything I say is tentative! Hi Daniel, I
    appreciate your honest reflection that represents probably most
    everyone who picks up Barth the first time. I wanted to comment on
    your last point about “Barth’s assertion that theology is not the
    only science that can speak (or instruct) about God” and your
    counterpoint that “theology is the only science based on
    revelation.” I don’t think his point is that all sciences are
    equally capable of “uncovering” things about God. He is saying,
    instead, that all sciences, including theology, are wholly
    inadequate to do any such uncovering. In my reading of Barth, the
    only uncovering of God is God’s uncovering of himself. I think this
    will become clearer later in this volume (CD I.1) when he begins
    expounding his theology of Revelation, which is always and only
    God’s free and gracious act. Revelation does not exist statically
    as an object for human apprehension, because revelation, when it
    really is revelation, is God’s Word spoken from the very ‘mouth’ of
    God. So not even the Bible (much less any subsidiary theologies)
    can be understood as revelation in its proper sense, as though
    God’s mouth must move when we, on our own initiative, open the
    pages and demand that he speaks. The Bible serves as (1) the
    Church’s concrete external authority that makes possible our
    obedience to God, since it issues the commands of God. Therefore,
    in our proclamation and reading of the Word of God and our
    obedience to his commands, we can anticipate God’s revelation
    (though not presume upon it), because these things were all
    initiated by God. (2) The Bible is not self-referential. It always
    is pointing beyond itself to the reality–to God speaking.
    Therefore, the Bible (particularly in its narratives) is a witness
    to revelation and only “[becomes the Word of God] when and where
    the biblical world comes into play as a word of witness, when and
    where John’s finger does not point in vain but really indicates,
    when and where we are enabled by means of his word to see and hear
    what he saw and heard. Thus in the event of God’s Word [and only as
    such] revelation and the Bible are indeed one, and literally so”
    (CD I.1, 113). So theology does not “possess special keys to
    special doors” anymore than God is locked in a room behind any
    special doors, waiting to be discovered. Seeking God does not look
    like a person pushing on a door to find him on the other side. It
    looks more like waves reaching up trying to grab the moon. There is
    an infinite and impassable gap that divides us. Revelation is
    always a dynamic event, an encounter–the moon crashing into the
    sea. When revelation occurs, it is an encounter between Subject and
    subject, not Object and subject. So while theology is indeed “based
    on revelation,” it and revelation are not one and the same, just as
    the Bible and revelation are not one and the same, unless God wills
    it so ever and again. Theology, however, purposes to help us
    understand the commands, the witness, and the commissioning of God
    for the Church, so that we might be faithful in our response. I

    • Wow. Very well said. This is why I am glad we are all doing this in community. His statement makes much more sense in my mind now.

      Reading Barth reminds me of reading Søren Kierkegaard for the first time since I would have completely misunderstood him had I not had help.

      • Jeremy says:

        I too am glad we are doing this in community. It’s not very easy to get a group together to read 6 million words of theology, but it sure makes it more enjoyable…possible. Looking forward to future dialogue.


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