Reading Barth with Me: §1.1

Jason Micheli —  February 28, 2013 — 5 Comments

barthBarth liked to listen to Mozart while he wrote- and smoke and drink.

I’m listening to Explosions in the Sky instead but I am drinking.

Coffee.

Here goes.

Throughout §1.1 Barth is attempting to identity the proper sphere in which theology is undertaken. Specifically, Barth believes theology is primarily the speech of the Church and that Christian faith is a given- it must be assumed- whenever and wherever God is spoken of.

§1.1is what theologians call ‘prolegomena.’ It’s a fancy Greek word for ‘preliminary things.’ Frankly, it’s usually the most boring part of any work of theology. Prolegomena is where theologians assert the rational, universal presuppositions by which the rest of their theology is possible.

In a sense its where theologians lay out the road map by which the reader can find their way to article of the faith apart from the faith. 

Frequently prolegomena is where one would find rational proofs of God’s existence: ‘God is the greatest of which no greater thought can be thought’ (Anselm). Having proven that any rational person can believe in a concept called ‘God’ such theology moves on to the particulars of incarnation, resurrection etc.

One example of how this method plays out is in Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Barth. Tillich tried to articulate the Christian by finding ‘correlative’ terms in the surrounding culture and using those common terms to translate what Christians mean by their various confessions. So for Tillich the doctrine of justification gets translated to a nonbeliever as ‘you are accepted.’

Another example of this method is many contemporary evangelical sermons in which the sermon begins with a rational assertion everyone, believer or not, can agree is ‘true.’ After establishing the proposition the preacher will then go to the text of scripture to validate it.

Both those examples would- did- make Barth throw up in his mouth. Barth in §1.1 is turning Anselm (‘God is the greatest of which no greater thought can be thought’ on his head). Instead, says, Barth, theology is always and necessarily so ‘faith seeking understanding…’

Even here in something as boring as prolegomena, Barth begins by playfully knocking s%$# around and turning convention on its head.

His prolegomena is the opposite of prolegomena. Barth’s essentially arguing that you’ll never get to Jesus Christ if you first must establish a common language for your listeners (4). Plus, we have no basis for or access to a common language apart from Christ because we can only know God because God spoke/speaks.

This is why Barth identifies his writing as dogmatics and not theology. Dogmatics is reflection on the dogma or beliefs of the Church not simply a generalized concept of God. Dogmatics is confession; it’s done in the Church. In addition, every believer, however haltingly, speaks of God; therefore, every believer is rightly considered a ‘theologian.’

Identifying Christ as the speech of God also leads Barth to assert that the Church’s “action” is not deeds of service etc but its speech. Because the Word is how God is made known to us, it’s through words we know and convey God (which has the practical admonition that how we speak to others can be a means of grace or a means of destruction). 

Around page 6, Barth asserts that theology is a science like other sciences. It’s a point Barth is ultimately ambivalent on but the rhetoric behind the assertion is attention-getting. Essentially, Barth is suggesting that like other sciences theology:

  1. is a human concern with a definite object of knowledge

  2. like other sciences, theology treads a definite, self-consistent path of knowledge, ie, theology as a discipline is internally consistent

  3. like other sciences, it must give an account of this path to itself and all others

While I don’t think theology is the same thing as, say, biology I do like how in #1 Barth has the stones simply to call people out, essentially:

‘Do you believe theology has an actual, living, existing object? Do you believe God is real or not? If not, why bother talking about God?’

#2 and #3 are less bluster and are more or less true in that theology is a discipline like history or philosophy with rules, tradition and accepted methods.

Having asserted why theology could be considered science, Barth goes on to disavow it for two reasons. First, the memory of WW1 makes Barth wary of Christians negotiating their faith on secular terms because it will always lead to dangerous accomodation to the State and Culture. Second, Barth thinks that considering theology a science is to make our knowledge of God a necessary part of our existence and for Barth anything we know about God is always a gift. It’s always revealed not discovered.

Because our knowledge of God is always gift, the best definition of faith/theology for Barth is: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’

Two last reflections:

For Barth, because God reveals God’s self in Jesus Christ (not in scripture…which we’ll get to later) our vocation as Christians and theologians is not to proclaim ‘what the apostles said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’ (15). That is, scripture is testimony and reflection on what God has spoken in Christ. Just as the apostles testified about Christ so too do we, using their testimony as a guide. In this sense, scripture is a springboard not a closed book.

Lastly, Barth makes the all-or-nothing claim that because God reveals himself in Christ, dogmatics is necessarily an act of faith.

There is, Barth argues, no possibility for reflection about God outside the Church. Any such reflection done outside the Church or faith will be ‘irrelevant and meaningless.’

For Barth, this means non-believers really have nothing to offer biblical and theological reflection (which, in fact, wasn’t borne out by the relationships Barth had in his life).

It would also mean- contra Emergence Christianity- that the world, culture etc are not places where the Spirit is at work and thus places where wisdom is to be found. Such an assertion, however, seems to leave out the entire Book of Acts where the Spirit is frequently working in unbelievers well-ahead of and apart from the work of the Church.

Not to mention the simple fact that I know plenty of people in the Church with ‘faith’ who don’t get Jesus at all. And I know plenty of people outside the Church who’d shirk at the word ‘faith’ being applied to them who get Jesus, down in their marrow.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jason Micheli

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5 responses to Reading Barth with Me: §1.1

  1. Regarding your last point: Isn’t it also the case that Barth softened this view later in life? Seeing the spirit more alive in the world.

    I’m also not sure that he means “church” as that brick building with the people in it. Is it possible that he means “church” as the community of believers following Christ. So he means that those group of people are the ones to whom the task of theology belongs. In other words, “truth” can’t be easily found outside the attempt to live it.

    By the way, is it too late to get in on this group — and is there a place online to find and read CD?

    • Hi Tracy,
      Gosh, knowing folks know something about Barth makes this more stressful for me 🙂
      Barth’s strict dialectic did soften later on in his CD, that’s true. While he takes up the Spirit in those volumes, the biggest- in my view- criticism one could wage against Barth is that the Holy Spirit really gets relegated into obscurity in his theology. It’s so Christocentric. It’s almost like he believes in the Father, Son and Holy Christ. He definitely doesn’t have in mind church buildings but still think this is an area to push back on him. The stories of Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts show the Spirit operating outside believers and apart from the Church.
      Not too late…
      And I’m told you can read the CD on Goole books.

  2. He’s fun and important but he’s too confident in the absoluteness of his own assertions. Damn reformed theologians!

    • Well, I’d agree on the absoluteness as it applies to many other reformed theologians, and neo-Calvinists today. Barth though…not sure. S 1.1 repeats over and again that theology is always just faith seeking after understanding. That implies a kind of humility about how partial our understanding is. And Barth’s belief that theology is never finished or complete, which as you probably know is why the CD is so damn long, suggests that he didn’t think his answers were ever complete. Where I’d agree with you, somewhat, is Barth’s critique of others. Although his commentary on Calvin and FS were both a healthy balance of charitable and critique.

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