Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline

Speaking in the summer of 1946, Karl Barth delivered a series of lectures to a group of faculty and students at the University of Basel.  Against the backdrop of the massive societal upheaval of World War II, Barth chose to allow the Apostles’ Creed to act as his outline for the lectures.  In commenting on the various articles of the Creed, Barth revealed an approach to theology that is at once rooted in the classical confession of the Church yet relevant to his modern context as well.  An evaluation of the lectures reveals a number of consistent characteristics among his approach to dogmatics.  Barth’s lectures reveal that he saw Christian dogmatics as being necessarily proclaimed, epistemologically ultimate, biblically based, tied in with the greater historical witness of the Church, restored to its true form in the Reformation, and, above all, relevant.

Barth defines dogmatics as the proper content of the Christian proclamation.  He contended that dogmatics stands “halfway between exegesis and practical theology” (12).  That is, dogmatics is neither the science of interpretation nor the act of application.  Rather, dogmatics is concerned with a foundation of content on the basis of which we speak.

It is essential that the place of proclamation in Barth’s conception and approach to dogmatics be discussed as it stands antecedent to all other attributes of his methodology.  For Barth, proclamation is the sine qua non of dogmatics.  The call to proclaim runs throughout the entire series of lectures.  When considering his sense of urgency and necessity in discussing proclamation, it is imperative to consider not only the personal risk Barth took in not accommodating his proclamation in Hitler’s Germany, but also the certain poignancy and tension of his comments as they were directed to German Christians who were just then having to deal with the tragedy of the German Church’s overall silence during the turbulent years of the war.  This is not to suggest that Barth’s emphasis on proclamation was somehow deceptive or intent upon correction or rebuke per se, or that it was not germane to the overall flow of his thought and approach to dogmatics, but only that there may have been a pastoral intention behind the emphasis as well.

Barth posits proclamation into the very meaning of dogmatics.  For Barth, dogmatics is not merely concerned with content but more so with “the content of proclamation in the Christian Church” (11).  In fact, he argues that “there would be no dogmatics” if it were not the Church’s responsibility to proclaim its content.  He saw proclamation as necessary not only to the definition of dogmatics, but of Christianity as well.  In his twenty-third lecture he noted that “Christians are messengers in Christ’s stead” (149).

The issue of proclamation stands behind two of the most impassioned and personal comments that Barth makes, with the possible exception only of his discussion of National Socialism in the eleventh lecture.  The first instance is one in which Barth speaks out against the concept of insular Christianity.  While discussing “Faith as Confession” in his fourth lecture, Barth first of all condemns any attempt at a personalized and non-proclaimed faith as actually uncommittment and dishonesty.  He then concludes this lecture by upbraiding faith that is lived in a “snail’s shell” as essentially disbelief.  The second instance comes in a fascinating and moving episode in which Barth reveals that some have approached him with concerns about how his lectures may be making non-Christians in the audience feel.  He notes that he has “always laughed” at such concerns and points to the Church’s commission to speak as well as the power of Christianity to bind people together.

All of this is to show that Barth not only deemed proclamation as the essence of dogmatics, but also that he lived in fundamental integrity with this belief.  One senses in the exclamation points, intensity, and colloquialisms of his speech at these points that the issue of proclamation stands as a watershed issue in his own mind.  It was an issue that nearly cost him his life as a professor and an issue which he obviously believed would either validate or refute the Church and for all that it stands.

Concomitant with Barth’s emphasis on proclamation is his obvious conviction concerning the primacy or epistemological ultimacy of Christian dogmatics.  It is of no small import that Barth speaks on the primacy of the Christian revelation most fully in his twelfth lecture, “God’s Only Son.”  Thus, his belief in the ultimacy of Christianity is fundamentally Christological.

Barth acknowledges the existence of a whole host of non-Christian teachings and assertions.  He does not deny that many of these have very important things to say.  Nonetheless, he concludes that “we must say of these revelations, that they are lacking in a final, simply binding authority” (82-83).  Thus, Barth rejected an excessively latitudinarian ecumenism that reduces the truth-claims of Christianity to being merely one set of pronouncements among many others of equal importance.  Furthermore, Barth points to Christ and, specifically, to His divinity as the foundation for his assertions.  Christ was God and, as such, speaks with a final authority (84).

Barth’s understanding of the primacy of Christian dogmatics is crucial insofar as it stands against the grotesquely simplistic relativism of a modern pluralistically religious society.  His claim is also interesting as it stands in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust.  In today’s society, assertions of Christian epistemological ultimacy are often pointed to as that which formed the ideological basis for such horrors as the anti-Semitic underpinnings of the “final solution,” among other things.  To find, then, in Barth, a man who risked life and limb to oppose the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s National Socialism yet, at the same time, who proclaimed the finality of the Christian message, is to find one of the too few examples of true Christian integrity in the war-torn Europe of the mid-twentieth century as well as an answer to the claim that such assertions of primacy equate to the atrocities of anti-Semitism.

Barth’s approach to dogmatics also reveals that he felt the Christian scriptures to be of essential importance in the formation of our dogmatic assertions.  Throughout the entire series of lectures, while using the Apostolic Creed as his framework, Barth immerses his discussion thoroughly in scripture.  In fact, he sees the Bible as the “standard” by which all claims must be weighed (13).  That is, the truthfulness or falseness of our claims is determined by their fidelity to the biblical text.  Barth also understood the Bible to be the clarifying and deciding factor in our understanding of church government (146).

It is more than clear that Barth cherished the Reformation maxim of sola scriptura.  To begin with, he appeals to scripture as the authoritative objective standard of truth in the Christian Church.  Such subjective appeals as those made to “my thoughts, or my heart” do not carry the weight of scripture (13).  Again, in his exaltation of the Bible over subjective experience, Barth stands in contrast to the modern groundswell of sympathy for purely existentialist expressions of faith which possess little more than the adherents’ whims and fancies as the grounds for their assertions.

What is more, Barth, while showing great respect for the historic confessions of the Church, as is evidenced by his use of the Apostle’s Creed and not-infrequent appeals to the Heidelberg Catechism, nonetheless saw such creeds as secondary to Scripture (13).  No doubt this conviction lies behind Barth’s insistence that the Church concern itself with the careful study and proclamation of the Bible and that it not let the scriptures denigrate into “a dead book with a cross on the cover and gilt edging” (146).  In so doing, Barth’s view of the authority of the Bible must be seen as thoroughly reformed.

Yet, Barth’s understanding of biblical authority did not negate that possibility of dogmatic expressions whose linguistic expressions do not match with legalistic strictness the form of the Hebrew Old Testament or Greek New Testament.  This is made clear in Barth’s discussion of Christ in his twelfth lecture.  In speaking of the divinity of Christ, Barth appeals with approval to the Nicene Creed’s language.  He then speaks against those who protest that the language of the Creed is not the language of scripture, noting that the “Bible is not a letter-box” and that the Church is justified in speaking theological truths on the basis of scripture even if those truths are expressed in words not found in the Bible itself (85).  This is significant insofar as it offers a corrective against unduly restrictive understandings of scripture and theological discourse.  For Barth, the truths of scripture, not scripture’s particular articulation of those truths, were exclusive.

While Barth’s dogmatics are biblical in nature, and while he asserts the supremacy of scripture over all of the confessions of the church, the prominence of the Church’s historic expressions of faith in these lectures warrants the claim that Barth saw the historic witness of the Church as crucial to the formulation and accurate proclamation of Christian verities as well.  There is, of course, the obvious and overshadowing presence of the Apostle’s Creed in Barth’s lectures.  He explains that he chose the model of the Creed simply because of its familiarity and that many other models might suffice, but one would not be remiss in seeing Barth’s appeal to the Creed as reflective of his own belief in the sustaining presence of God’s hand throughout the history of the Church.  It is more than ironic that a man who is considered by many to be perhaps the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century should model his lectures on the Creed, but it is certain that Barth would not have found it so.  It is clear that he felt himself to be standing in the stream of the great witness of the Church throughout time.

While acknowledging that the confessions of the historic Church is not “binding” upon us in the manner in which scripture is binding, Barth nonetheless acknowledges a “non-binding” authority.  He argues for taking the witness of the Church throughout time “seriously,” and, in a fascinating image, likens the authority of those who have preceded us to the authority of a parent over a child (13).  Thus, we should honor the historic confessions of the church.  In fact, Barth twice scolds those Christians who would make light of, neglect, or easily dismiss the historic witness of the Church.  In his defense of the language of the Nicene Creed regarding the deity of Christ, Barth labels the dismissal of “orthodoxy” as “barbaric,” uneducated, and disrespectful (85).  Later, in his fourteenth lecture, Barth defends the Council of Chalcedon’s articulation of “hypostatic union” and dismisses the modern weariness of such articulations as “plebeian” and the result of a “barbaric intellectuality.”  In truth, Barth, on these two different occasions, seems almost frustrated with the Church’s shallow respect for the historic Church’s efforts in articulated theological verities.

One shudders to think what Barth would make of the shockingly excessive individualism of modern American Protestantism.  Too many expressions of modern Protestantism resemble a ship without an anchor.  The banality of the superficial “Jesus and me” mentality exhibited time and again in our churches is less a result of the indisputable overall downplaying of the mind in our church contexts than it is a deliberate determination that the historic witness of the church is simply not as important as the subjective and often emotivistic experience between the individual and Jesus at this moment.  The emptiness of many Protestant expressions of worship have even led to something of an exodus of Protestants to Greek Orthodoxy and even Roman Catholicism.  One of the primary reasons for such moves is the perceived and oftentimes actual neglect of historical moorings among Protestants.  Against such debilitating impediments as these, Barth’s respect for the patristic and confessional utterances of the Church offers a resounding rebuke.

It must be noted too that Barth’s approach to dogmatics was fundamentally Reformed.  His appeal to sola Scriptura has already been mentioned, but there remains a number of indications of his affinity for the witness of the Reformed church in particular.  In Barth’s twenty-second lecture on the Church, he makes a rather fascinating comment which can be taken as a summary of his thoughts concerning the history of the Reformation.  He comments that “the Reformers came and the Roman Church remained behind the Reformed Church and separated from it” (145).  By claiming that it was the Roman Church which separated from the Reformed Church and not vice versa, Barth was making a none-too-subtle statement regarding his belief that it was the Reformed Church which carried on the true gospel.  In this sense, the Roman Church was the schismatic church.

This idea is also implicitly evident in Barth’s use of the Apostolic Creed in his articulation of a reformed theology.  The very sight of a reformed theologian using the Apostolic Creed as his framework suggests that a conviction concerning the restorative nature of reformed theology to the purity of apostolic doctrine is evident.  It is obviously assumed by Barth that, if not necessarily in all of their particulars, the theologies of Luther and Calvin may generally stand with the Creed in theological unity.

Barth’s reformed proclivities are further evident in his frequent appeals to Calvin, Luther, and the Hiedelberg Catechism.  He appeals to Calvin in his discussion of the creation and of the Church (58, 142).  He interacts with Luther in his discussion of heaven and earth and the lordship of Christ, and references him in discussing baptism (60, 88, 150).  In so doing, Barth gives his stamp of affirmation to the validity of knowing and studying the theology of the reformers.  More than this, by offering these sentiments in the context of the Protestant church of Germany, Barth was implicitly pointing to the ongoing validity of reformation itself.  He did not interact with the reformers solely because his particular church context called for such or because he chose to use them as mere historical examples.  Thus, not only the particulars of the reformers’ theology is worthy of our consideration, but their belief that the church in every age needs to be reflective and reforming is as well.

The modern Protestant church would do well to mark Barth’s belief in the relevancy of reformed theology.  Too many churches seem to regard the maxims of the Reformation as either irrelevant studies in historical theology, or else they are merely assumed without understanding the reformers’ arguments that lie beneath them.  Barth’s lectures reveal a familiarity and interaction with the reformers which suggests that their words need not only to be heard, but comprehended in the modern church.

The most interesting aspect of Barth’s dogmatics is his application of theological truths to his particular day and society.  By applying the truths of the Creed to the particular social, ecclesiastical, and political circumstances of postwar Germany, Barth was suggesting that theology truly belongs not in the ivory tower, but on the street.  While he may, at times, indulge in speculative theology, Barth was no mere speculative theologian.  He makes this clear in his quite moving statement from the fourth lecture:  “If our faith is real, it must encroach upon our life” (32).  Theology, for Barth, spoke to the present day if it spoke at all.  This is clearly seen in many instances in his dogmatics.

In his discussion of Christ as the Savior, Barth addresses the issue of anti-Semitism within the Church by reminding his audience of the Jewishness of Jesus as well as of the place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan.  In fact, Barth suggests that the Church will suffer if it does not properly understand the place of Israel in salvation history (75).  From here, he moves on to a strong condemnation of “the anti-Semitic core” of National Socialism (76).

By even addressing what was certainly a relevant and emotionally-charged issue around the entire world in the mid-twentieth century, Barth showed great daring and acumen.  More than that, however, he showed that the Church cannot and dare not remain silent at the risk of offending those who might disagree.  Furthermore, Barth showed that the Church must not be afraid to address the matters of the state.  His discussion of National Socialism therefore shows the Church that, whatever its views of the relationship of church and state might be, it must not cease to speak where there is evil.
Without trying to read into Barth’s discussion of relevant political issues more than is warranted, it must be noted that he would have seen any church’s refusal to address political issues at all as unfortunate.  It seems within many American churches as if political issues and social issues are taboo as far as sermons are concerned.  On the other end of the spectrum, it seems as if some churches speak of little else.  Barth appears to offer a mediating position.  His concern is primarily theological, yet it necessarily must address certain political instances as theology.  In other words, Barth certainly considered himself to be “doing theology” while discussing National Socialism as much, if not more so, as he did when discussing the language of Chalcedon.  Theology, to Barth, was not only penultimate, it was expansive and encroached upon all areas of life by necessity.

On a smaller scale, Barth’s discussion of political issues strikes at the very root of the unfortunate secular/religious dichotomy that many believers have claimed for their own beliefs.  Barth certainly would have recoiled at the American believers who suggest that their beliefs in God do not affect their political understandings or their stances on social issues (92).  The assumptions behind the “religiously conservative/socially liberal” dichotomy, for example, would have seemed unwarranted to him. If this state of belief were reached after careful theological reflection, it would be legitimate as a matter of conviction.  But this distinction has become a cheap way out for many within the church not to have to apply theological truths to contemporary life.  Most tragically, it represents a theological fallacy by assuming that God’s pronouncements may be compartmentalized in one corner of our greater ideologies to the extent that they do not intrude upon other beliefs.

So strident were Barth’s convictions in this regard that he proclaimed making “the Confession heard in the sphere of the world” to be the “one task” of the Church (33).  Subsequently, he rebuked the Church for its all-too-often irrelevant language.  The Church is to speak the truths of God in the language of its culture.  In this sense, Barth saw theology as inherently evangelical.  It must be taken to the world in terms that the world can understand.  Perhaps here, more than in any other area, Barth puts a burden on the preaching ministry of the church.  Pastors must proclaim God’s truth in ways in which it can be comprehended.  More generally, Barth intended this idea to be applied to all believers.

One need not wonder long what Barth would have made of many churches and denominations that have become so inward focused as to make them largely irrelevant in the culture.  On the other hand, it can only rightly be argued that Barth did not intend in his arguments for relevancy for churches to achieve this at the expense of truth.  Specifically, Barth’s dogmatics show that he would have no tolerance for radical expressions of “seeker-sensitive” churches which downplay and even neglect Christian teaching in an effort to reach people.  We are to be relevant, but we are to be relevant with and in God’s truth.

Furthermore, Barth’s call for theological earnestness and efforts towards relevancy throughout these lectures stand as something of an indictment against much of the North American church growth philosophies.  Barth would have looked at some of the more bizarre expressions of this philosophy with disdain.  Translating, as he called it, “the language of the pulpit” into the language of the people does not mean you jettison the truths being expressed in the pulpit or even that you seek to remove their offensiveness to modern ears.  Rather, it means that you take the message of Christ, which is necessarily offensive and intrusive as it speaks to all areas of human life, and communicate it in such a way that lost men and women in a particular society may comprehend it.

A careful study of Barth’s dogmatics would do much good for today’s churches.  Whether one agrees with all of Barth’s methodologies and arguments, his attempts at communicating classical Christian expressions within the context of a turbulent and broken cultural and societal atmosphere stand as a wonderful example to the modern Church of how to go about speaking the truths of God.  His refusal to compromise his theological convictions or to remain quiet on the issues surrounding his particular cultural and political surroundings present a model that any Church would be wise to emulate.

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