Saturday, January 22, 2011

Church Dogmatics 1.1.3 Preaching as "the audible sacrament"

This section was a complete challenge to me. Barth not only discusses preaching, but he discusses why preaching exists, how it is arrived at by an ecclesiology that is itself immersed (baptized) in revelation.

Preaching has always been a given from my youth. We read the Bible. We talk to others about what we’ve read or hear from them what they’ve read. Preaching is this same thing but broadcast out with greater authority due to the calling of the preacher and the deference of the community of hearers.

Yet, this isn’t a preaching supported by dogmatics, rather sociology or cultural anthropology. This is an emotional or intellectual appeal. Not that the preachers from my youth have not been sincere men. Not that they did not understand their own ministries dogmatically--they may have and probably did. No, I mean my understanding was largely a shallow one.

Later Reformed theology taught me to respect the Word preached, but the dogmatic apparatus was still missing.

Now I completely see the oversight; “in this dogmatics preaching is not only assigned less importance, but virtually no importance at all“ (65)! And without the confessional apparatus, how can one truly address oneself to or urge the church on to attend to proclamation? How can one understand what should be preached and why? “Proclamation along these lines can only end with its dissolution. Proclamation as self-exposition (read, oh twenty-first century, the term “authentic” or “authenticity”) must in the long run turn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking” (64). Indeed, without preaching the church is either the mystery of performance or a center of social justice practiced by human beings “alone in and with (the) world” (Ibid).

And now I am left to wonder about proclamation as a sacrament. “The Word is the audible sacrament and the sacrament, the visible Word” (71). I may be instructed by preaching, but do I receive grace in the hearing--a grace that allows for the “hearing of the promise” and for “obedience to it” (67)? So is grace available--I speak as if it is a substance--as a punctiliar judgment once-for-all applied or is it an ever flowing stream “whose waters make glad”?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Church Dogmatics pp 25-44: the Church Emerging

Here are a few disconnected thoughts puffed and wheezed at the summit of the slight but sheer face of Barth’s prolegomena.

Having established his presuppositions in the previous section, Barth fixes the task before him, namely to overcome Modernity (Pietism) and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism in favor of a (miraculous) Evangelische Theologie. The whole forms a scholastic Quodlibet. It is dialectical and masculine. We feel the direct, interested squint of the sportsman. The leaning in and warming to an argument from one who likes nothing better. “If this faith falls” he says, by which we may understand the two forms of faith aforementioned, “so does this interpretation of faith, so too the presupposition of an anthropological prius of faith, and so finally the possibility of prolegomena of this kind” (39)

Barth’s agenda follows in the footsteps of the Reformers by emphasizing the fallenness of humanity and the unmerited grace of God. First, he puts the error in both of these dogmatic emphases at the feet of any definition of faith which finds traction in humanity, in “human possibility” (38). That, he says, cannot be, recalling the doctrine of human depravity. Similarly, the correct definition is one that centers itself not on human possibility or decision, but only (sola) on the free (gratia) revelation of the triune God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s attitude toward Reformation emphases does not cease there, however. As I’ve said before, he seems to take up Reformation emphases without fear and explore them, twentieth-century feet soldiering about in sixteenth-century boots. The result is a Christologic prolegomena out of which an ecclesiology emerges. Let me just throw this against the wall.

Sacraments: “In, with and under the human question, dogmatics speaks of the divine answer” (12). Barth’s discussion of the necessity of faith for dogmatic work is working with the same tools as form the doctrine that the efficacy of the sacrament is not bound by the worthiness of the priest who administers: “The time has come to go back with a new understanding to pre-Pietist doctrine of the theological habitus in virtue of which the theologian is what he is by the grace of God quite irrespective his greater or lesser likeness to [Kierkegaard’s existential awareness]” (20). Note especially Barth’s trouble with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation whereby “that which is beyond all human possibilities changes at once into that which is enclosed within the reality of the Church . . . Roman Catholic faith believe this transformation (emphasis mine). . . . It affirms an analogia entis . . . the possibility of applying the secular ‘There is’ to God” (41). This hints at a much more existential sacramental theology perhaps to come.

Community: "The results of earlier dogmatic work, and indeed our own results, are basically no more than signs of its [truth’s] coming. They are simply the results of human effort. As such they are a help to, but also the object of, fresh human effort. . . . Our dogmatic labors can and should be guided by results which are venerable because they are attained in the common knowledge of the Church at a specific time. Such results may be seen in the dogmas enshrined in the creeds. (15)” “To be in the Church . . . is to be called with others by Jesus Christ. To act in the Church is to act in obedience to this call. This obedience to the call of Christ is faith” (13).

Spiritual Disciplines. Prayer as “the attitude without which there can be no dogmatic work” (23). “We do not speak of true prayer if we say ‘must’ instead of ‘can’. According to Romans 8.26ff., the way from ‘can’ to ‘must’ is wrapped in the mystery at the gates of which we here stand” (23-24). Penitence. “Dogmatics must always be undertaken as an act of penitence and obedience” (22). Confession. “There can be success in this work . . . on the basis of divine correspondence to this human attitude: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’” (24).

The Great Commission. This is the substance of preaching, the need to test what one preaches, and a warning against apologetics which gives unbelief an ontological hold on the argument that it neither deserves nor has.

Election underlies the entire enterprise. Election is the event. The free work of God. To bind God’s freedom is to bind his election. (And what affect will this have on Barth’s doctrine of baptism?)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Church Dogmatics 1.1.2

You say what you are. That’s what Barth is getting at in this section. Perhaps “are” is the wrong term, as it presupposes a metaphysic of being (and the personal jury is still out as to whether Barth’s is a metaphysics of ontology). Nevertheless, Barth’s doctrine of revelation--what you say--is dictated by what you are. Say, then, that you are God, then Truth is what you are. So what you say of yourself, what you reveal of yourself, is Truth. Say, then, that you are a human being. Limited. A created thing. A creature. Your “saying” is also limited and created, encompassing at best only a world of created things.

But when the Church becomes--when it is elected in God’s providence for faith in the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, then it confesses what it knows to be there, but with created lips. And so Truth erupts eschatologically into the world through its confession--a confession it is given, not one it has appropriated, a confession born of seeking not of obtaining. “It does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures [what is true]. It sees and recognizes that this is given within the Church. It is given in its own peculiar way, as Jesus Christ is given, as God in His revelation gives Himself to faith. But it is given” (12).

There are two levels of knowledge, even as they are two levels of what can be expressed. Because it is Jesus who speaks, and because Jesus is the incarnate Son, and because the Son enjoys the pure agape of trinitarian fellowship with the Father, then his word can be trusted. His word, he himself, is an analogia fidei (τὴν ἀναλογίαν τῆς πίστεως) which is a true canon. “He is the truth, not merely in Himself, but also for us as we know Him solely by faith in Jesus Christ” (12).

The one level is a level of perfect comprehension and speech--a “charismatic theology from within” whose characteristic theologian in Paul. The other is steps out after, asking and fumbling according to the ontology of those who ask. “As the Church accepts from Scripture, and with divine authority from Scripture alone, the attestation of its own being as the measure of its utterance . . . (16 emphasis mine). This is a “theology from without” whose characteristic theologians are the second-century apologists. “It alone creates fellowship and can be ecclesiastical and scientific” (22). Nevertheless, it is “always undertaken as an act of penitent obedience” and its chief method is prayer born of faith that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16.13 ESV). It believes that “in, with and under the human question [note the inference to Luther’s doctrine of the Eucharistic presence] dogmatics speaks of the divine answer” (12).

I should note, as well, that this two-layered matrix of speech, the Truth and the questions that point to the truth, is very reminiscent of the scholastic argument that the efficacy of the sacrament was not bound to the piety of the officiant, or lack of it.

I like that Barth is not content to set out on beaten paths. He goes to foundations and comes back with a doctrine of revelation that I’ve heard lampooned and spoken against my whole life. Barth’s theology can make a dead dog into divine revelation. He denigrates the scriptures, they say, and dissolves revelation into subjectivity.

Most of these criticisms and the critics that wield them have not read Barth, or, if they have read him, have not attempted to understand him--at least that is my governing hypothesis. I do not think he denigrates church history, the creeds, or the scriptures. They are, in fact, the matrix upon which his Dogmatics is built. So the truth of the matter is more subtle.

I have the feeling Barth is not out to change the accident but the substance of theological activity in the world. And I have a feeling he is wresting the podium from the hands of confident rhetoricians and reminding everyone, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great” (Prv. 25.6 ESV). The self-revealing of the Triune God is a power beyond the epistemological dictates of scientific reductionism, and He is coming into the world.

And I wonder if Barth is reading Calvin better than Calvin has been read in a very long time. I wonder if Barth is breathing the spirit/Spirit of the Reformers and grasping the true sense of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the church reformed and always reforming, and therefore calling subsequent comfortable Protestant-scholasticism what it is.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Church Dogmatics 1.1.1

Why does Barth care about science? Right away, with this obsession with science, we twenty-first century readers realize we’ve crossed over into a different way of things. Einstein yet lives. Science has shoved the epistemology of the West under the iron lid of its own method. What concord should Jerusalem have with Athens? Why does Barth care about science?

Earlier today, I commented on Daniel Owen’s blog Beginning Barth that it seems to me as if “Barth is offering theology on the altar of post-enlightenment scientism.” But having read the whole of this section, I do not think this is the case. Barth does flirt with science, but the word and thing are not identical to what is commonly understood. Theology can be called a science in that it has internal consistency that is defined according to its object. But it cannot be called a science if it must submit to “the idea of unity, the possibility of myth, and the humanistic relevance of Christianity” (Arthur Titius, Berlin 1932. Note Barth's attentiveness to the scientific pronouncements of his day).

What emerges is a taking up of the term “science” as an act of solidarity, an act done from forgiveness and for evangelical hope (or judgment). That which is not assumed cannot be atoned for, and theology extends an invitation to every other science, saying, “come and be assumed.” Theology is no different from them. It also is a flawed, human discipline. And it is weaker than they, for rather than being fixed solidly in this age, theology hovers in gossamer fragility between the times. “It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos.” There is a signpost here pointing decades forward to Jürgen Moltmann’s assertion that eschatology is the only foundation of dogmatics. And there is also a statement made about the possibility of natural theology. It is possible, if I understand Barth, but it is improbable. “Might it not be that Jer. 31.34 is in process of fulfilment? . . . There might be such a thing as philosophia christiana.” “Now if God be wisdom (sapientia Deus est), as truth and scripture testify, then a true philosopher is a lover of God” (Augustine. De Civitas Dei Chap 8 Sect 1).

The difference between those sciences and this theological one (Augustine’s de divinitate ratio sive sermo), is the central principle. Those other sciences judge “the utterance of the Church about God in accordance with alien principles” whereas theology has its own principle: Jesus Christ, the “basis, goal and content” of the Church.

Barth’s treatment of Christ the Center is amazingly apophatic. Biblical theology (Does Christian utterance derive from Him?), practical theology (Does it lead to Him?), and dogmatic theology (Is it conformable to Him?) are three circles overlapping in a venn diagram from whose center one respectfully turns “it is well neither to affirm nor to construct a systematic center”. The threefold pattern of theological disciplines, its questions, and the three-fold adjectives he uses of Christ (basis, goal and content), loosely correspond and together beat the tempo of a trinitarian schema to come. The apophatic Christology of a center that is “neither affirmed nor constructed” and the apophatic nature of the one ousia at the center of three hypostasis. This is poetic metre. Aesthetically pleasing, yes, but is this a truly necessary trinity? Did Barth begin with science and end with . . . worship?

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Preparing to Read Karl Barth

So it seems that I and a dozen or so other bloggers have answered J. R. Daniel Kirk's invitation to read through Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (CD). And you would think that, having written lengthy reviews on several "how to read Barth"-style books, and having read a bit of Barth over the years myself, that this would be an enthusiastic undertaking. Nevertheless, I'm terrified.

Blogging takes time. Thus the long falling off since Caleb was born. Two kids don't translate into T-I-M-E. Can I find time enough to write again and stay with it?

Interpreting Barth correctly is a kind of cottage industry among Barthians. Will I understand him? Will I miss some fundamental foundation and read a thousand pages in the wrong direction? And, in so doing, will I embarrass myself?

Barth himself was not kindly received by thinkers from the traditions of my youth, namely Southern fundamentalism and conservative Reformed. Based on their reading, Barth is the quickest way to undermine every sure plank of doctrine. His is the hand to topple unwary young minds into the slough of liberal despond.

And then there is the simple difference in time. The first volume of the CD was written in German in Switzerland in the 1930s. That means that Barth's interlocutors, his enemies, his politics and, indeed, his language require interpretation beyond bare cogitation.

In the face of these difficulties, the presence of a community of, at this writing, strangers comes as great comfort. I have no doubt that they will educate me more than I them. It feels right to be climbing in to the CD in the presence of a congregation (ekklaesia).

Finally, something Ezra Pound said in his book The ABCs of Reading stays with me. Pound said that a student should study masters. "It is my firm conviction," he said, "that a man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."

Barth himself is, undoubtedly, a master. And with him comes a community of masters; indexed citations cluster around Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Calvin, Schleiermacher, and, most prevalently, Luther. Who can hang back in such a company? And so, friends, let us begin!


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