Engaging with Barth: Dogmatics in Outline

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If you’re anything like me, Karl Barth is the kind of theologian who you’ve heard lots about, but haven’t actually read. Often called the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, he sounds like he’s an interesting and provocative read. But his main work, Church Dogmatics, is a massive multivolume tome. Not only is it expensive (at least for an edition where the non-English phrases are translated), but you also risk missing the forest for the trees.

So when I first came across a slim volume of his called “Dogmatics in Outline”, I was intrigued. It’s Barth’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, delivered in the semi-ruins of Bonn University in 1946:

the hour seven a.m., always after we had sung a psalm or hymn to cheer us up. About eight o’clock the rebuilding in the quadrangle began to advertise itself in the rattle of an engine for breaking up the ruins.

Barth lectured with basically a post-it sized set of notes (“the primitive conditions I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to dispense with a manuscript”). According to Barth himself this has the effect of making his writing more accessible: “this looser form [might] serve to explain things which I had elsewhere expressed more strictly and compactly but, for that very reason perhaps, less noticeably and accessibly for all.”

So, for that reason, and because his ideas are rooted in an exposition of a classic text, the Apostles’ Creed, I thought this would be a sensible place to start reading Barth.

Each of the chapters in the book begins with a proposition expressed in a sentence or two which Barth then unpacks. My plan is to blog about each of these chapters, giving Barth’s proposition and then highlighting and discussing what seem to be the main features.

The first chapter is called the Task, and it’s Barth’s view of what he himself is doing in Dogmatics in Outline, so I’ll end this introductory post with an overview of this chapter.

Dogmatics is the science in which the Church, in accordance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its Confessions

In this opening chapter, Barth discusses his view of ‘dogmatics’. We might be surprised today at the use of the word science to describe the work of theology, but by that Barth means “an attempt at comprehension and exposition, at investigation and instruction, which is related to a definite object and sphere of activity.”

So Barth is not invoking the scientific method in a strict sense, but he is wanting to allude to both the rigour and provisional nature of human scientific investigation. He doesn’t see Christian dogmatics as something fallen from Heaven in a pristine state, but as the ongoing task of critically examining what the Church proclaims. In other words, he says the task of the science of dogmatics is to answer the question: “what as Christians do we really have to say?” I appreciated this emphasis on refining the Church’s proclamation – it means that the goal of dogmatics is inherently practical, missional and churchly. It ought to help keep us from descending into “meaningless talk”.

A related point that Barth stresses is that dogmatics is meant to be done by the Church. This might seem like an obvious point, but it serves to nicely begin to locate Barth for us. His background and early career was in the liberal university theology of early 20th Century German. Barth came to a place where he rejected that theology as empty and rethought nearly everything. Clearly in this opening chapter we can see how Scripture, proclamation and the Church are vital for him, but the fact that he has to stress these points shows just how different his context is to many of ours today: he is an ex-liberal (and who knows still how liberal) talking I imagine to liberals and ex-liberals. In his preface, Barth describes how he discovered in the rubbish of the University a bust of the ‘Father of liberal theology’ Friedrich Schleiermacher, which was “restored to honour again”. So when we read Barth we need to be aware that he may not be reacting to our debates, and that he has been coming from quite a different place.

Next time we’ll get into the Apostles’ Creed itself: Barth will begin to define faith, as he unpacks the first words of the Creed – “I believe…”

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