A while back someone asked me for some reasons why they should not leave the United Methodist Church. I didn’t have time to respond and, frankly, I couldn’t come up with any answers that wouldn’t sound cliche or, worse, prejudicial.
The truth is the issues that once ruptured the Body of Christ are now largely resolved.
How justification is understood in the Catholic Church now resembles how justification is understood in most Protestant churches and that, of course, was the primary dispute.
So I didn’t come up with any real, urgent reasons. People should go to the church where their faith is most alive and activated. That said, Karl Barth gives his reasoning in this section of the Dogmatics.
Again and again in 1.1 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth comes back to the question ‘what is the word of God?’
What does the Bible have to do with the word of God?
And how does Bible direct what the Church says about the faith?
In §1.7 Barth locates what he’s said thus far within the rubric of Dogmatics. In doing so, Barth distinguishes what he takes to be Protestant Dogmatics from both the dogma of modernism and dogma of Roman Catholicism. By contrast, in Barth’s view at least, Protestant Dogmatics is unique in the role the Bible exerts as a word that can always stand as a witness over and against the finite words of people. In a nutshell, this is Barth’s assertion:
In fact Church proclamation is not an undertaking which can come under other criteria than God’s Word in respect of its content. Other criteria cede ground, building the identity of the church on something other than that which truly defines it.
Barth thus aims his polemical ire at Roman Catholicism.*It should be noted, however, that Barth respected Roman Catholicism; he was invited as one of the lone Protestants at Vatican II and he counted Hans Urs Von Balthasar as one of the best theologians of the 20th century.
For Barth the difference between Protestant and Catholic dogmatics comes down to whether or not the church has been entrusted with dogmas that must be believed- apart from the word.
Barth argues that to place our belief in ecclesial dogmas is to place our belief in the words of men rather than the Word of God.
Barth goes so far as to assert that their very character as dogmas, which are often logically derived, differentiates them from the dogmatics that emerges out of strict obedience to the Word.
For an example of the kind dogma Barth might have in mind, consider the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception. Protestants (and Catholics for that matter) often erroneously assume the immaculate conception refers to Christ’s conception by the Spirit. Not so.
It actually refers to Mary’s sinless conception, which is a logical necessity- so goes the doctrine- if Jesus is without sin and sin- so goes the antiquated doctrine- is passed down to us biologically.
The immaculate conception is entirely logical when considered in its own and perhaps it’s defensible theologically for what it tries to convey.
Nonetheless, Barth would insist the Church should not be given dogmas which it must believe which themselves do not come to us by way of the word.
Before you think Barth’s just jumping on Roman Catholicism, note how his critique could just as easily be leveled at certain strands of Protestantism today. Within the so-called neo-Calvinist movement, fidelity to the Reformers’ (mis)interpretation of justification transcends an honest reading of justification as its given to us in scripture. Many neo-Calvinists do not do what their predecessors did, always reforming and reexamining assumptions, but instead reify doctrine in the precise way Barth insists we should not do.
Or consider how many evangelical fundamentalists hold to a doctrine of scriptural infallibility- and require others hold to it to be considered legitimate Christians- that scripture itself does not give us and which is itself a relatively recent product of anti-modernism.
Barth’s other target in this section is modernism, which is the air most Christians in the West breathe. Modernism refers to theologies that begin with ‘secular’ knowledge and then proceed to the Bible, often forcing scripture to fit into a-scriptural categories and jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit: ‘We know resurrection can’t happen so this must be a story of the disciples’ own interior experience of Jesus being with them still, in their hearts.’
This type of theology, with its feigned sophistication, is everywhere in and out of the Church. The world becomes the measure of what we say when we speak of God. No doubt, this is a necessary to an extent.
We can’t just assume a 1st century worldview, but neither can we afford to lose the Bible’s freedom to stand against us in judgment.