Dogmatics is not a term I am accustomed to using from my church background so the natural starting point in studying Barth is to figure out what he means by ‘dogmatics’ and why it is important. Barth gives this definition.
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.
Now admittedly, that sounds boring to most folks, but I think there are some interesting aspects to what Barth is saying. I like his emphasis on theology as a function of the Church.
Barth puts the emphasis on theology as action. Church Dogmatics, is the way God’s people live out their faith–not just the way they write it down on paper. Dogmatics is both the action of the individual and the action of the community working in concert. In a sense, theology has little or no meaning outside of action.
The Church confesses God as it talks about God. It does so first by its existence in the action of each individual believer. And it does so secondly by its specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and the administration of the sacraments, in worship, in its internal and external mission including works of love amongst the sick, the weak and those in jeopardy. — The actions of the church are its theology!
The church produces theology as She examines Herself. This process is illustrated well in the Emergent and House church movements. As these group critiques traditional churches, their choices and methods produce a new set of theology. This does not mean all theology is good. I have said for many years, and find agreement in Barth, that Jesus’ shed blood not only cleanses our sin, but also covers over our bad theology. All theology, bad or good, is meaningless outside of the justifying grace of Jesus Christ. The conversation and revision of theology is, in and of itself, an act of obedience that produces good fruit even if we cannot see it.
One of my favorite aspects in Barth’s dogmatics is how he sees theology as a process of self-examination. In doing theology, the church seeks to discover and reveal truth, and in the process it discovers the nature of Her own existence.
- Biblical theology answers the question of basis. Who are we?
- Practical theology answers the question of goal. Where are we going?
- Dogmatic theology answers the question of content. How will we get there?
In each of these three areas, church history is the tool that informs our understanding of these three components of our search for truth.
If Barth is right in saying Church Dogmatics is about our actions; both corporate and individual, then…
- How do your actions demonstrate the death and resurrection of Christ?
- How do your actions represent the grace of Christ and the forgiveness of sin?
- How do your actions reinforce God’s love for the Church?
- How do your actions reflect the love of Christ for the lost?
- How do your actions show the hope of Christ’s return?
* All quotes are from —Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics, Volume I The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, Translation of Die kirchliche Dogmatik.; Each pt. also has special t.p.; Includes indexes., 2d ed., 3 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2004).