Personal Reflections on Reading Church Dogmatics

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Readers of this blog (all three of you) will be happy to note that I’ve completed Vol I, Part 1 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I’m proud to say that I’m on schedule to finish Dogmatics by the end of 2010. When I initially decided to begin such a program I was unsure of why I took up the task. I had only read Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline and the Humanity of God. I was underwhelmed by both works. Part of me wanted to engage orthodoxy at its finest, and being the good Protestant that I am I decided it would be probably the best argument for Protestant orthodoxy. Barth’s not too conservative to remind of my past, and not theologically liberal enough to bore me. However, my motivation still remains unclear to me on a more personal level. Perhaps, I wanted to give orthodoxy one final shot. Not that I’m a raging heretic, but I often find parts of the creeds problematic along with many of the different topics of theology uninteresting. The last topics you’ll ever hear me discussing on this blog will be ecclesiology, pneumatology, missiology, or soteriology. When it comes to theology I like a small number of the actual disciplines: Christology, eschatology, atonement, theological theology (you know actual God-talk). I think that’s what has partly drawn me to both Barth and Altizer. They both remain so insistent that theology’s proper subject is God. Barth goes to painstaking lengths to justify why he doesn’t outline a proper anthropology apart from his theology. Likewise, although Altizer certainly has his political and ethical commitments, he has remained steadfast to constructing a theology that remains God-centered. In fact, Mark C Taylor called Altizer the most God-obsessed person he’s ever met. These men are true theologians. The problem with both Barth and Altizer, in my opinion, is that you either buy their theologies or you don’t. I mean the death of God is such a divisive issue that most people won’t bother engaging a book when they completely disagree (or more likely misunderstand) what Altizer intends by such a phrase. Likewise, with Barth I feel as if one buys his premises then it’s incredibly different to argue against his cogent and persuasive prose. Again, I emphasize one has to actually accept his presuppositions. As much as I find myself disagreeing with Barth, I hope my readers will continue to enjoy my critique and commentary concerning his Dogmatics. Hey, if nothing else, at least you can pretend to have actually read the entire damn tome through a series of fifty short blog posts.

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11 Responses to “Personal Reflections on Reading Church Dogmatics”

  1. Collin Says:

    It was depressing in my Bible Intro class today (aka bad textual criticism/slapping innerrancy in your face with circular logic) when my prof brought up Barth for a total of 45 seconds and then dismissed him entirely while also grouping him with existentialists that “don’t believe in god” (by which i assume he was referring to secular existentialists?)
    ahhh the wonders of attending an evangelical college, i should have known what i was getting myself into..

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Wheaton, no? Honestly, Collin I’m worried about you. Clearly, the Bible is inerrant and true because it’s God’s Word, and this is obvious because the Bible claims to be God’s Word. If you can’t follow this logic it’s probably cause you’re going to hell. The existentialists comment is so unfair. Barth goes into painstaking detail to write a theology that is not dependent on any philosophical systems. Not to mention he was incredible critical of Tillich’s existentialist rendering of Christian doctrine. Which existentialists is he referring to? Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard? I mean Sartre is your classical atheist, and obviously Kierkegaard’s Christian. The relationship of theism and atheism is much more nuanced in Heidegger and Nietzsche. Not to mention the fact that claiming that Tillich was an atheist would be entirely unfair. I’d ask your professor if he’s ever read Barth because dismissing the greatest theologian of the 20th century with a faulty association is beyond unfair.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    Hey just wanted to say — keep it up! I don’t comment often because I dislike doing so unless I have something intelligent to say, but I’ve certainly enjoyed reading your reflections on the dogmatics. Good stuff.

  4. A.J. Smith Says:

    Keep ‘em coming Jeremy.

    The most annoying thing about evangelicalism’s dismissal of Barth is not that they dismiss him (although this, it is true, is certainly irritating) but because they dismiss him without having any working or truly salient knowledge of Barth other than, of course, that he was a flaming heretic who rejected inerrancy.

    Colin, we did much better than you in my High School Bible class. At least we had syllogisms:

    1. If the Bible is inerrant, then it is inerrant
    2. The Bible is inerrant
    3. Therefore, The Bible is inerrant

  5. Collin Says:

    I’m going to go ahead and assume that he’s never read Barth from his comments. Actually not Wheaton but Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton feels like the promised land from where I am. I’m keeping sane by working through Jennings and learning how to relate to evangelical theology..

  6. Dave Mesing Says:

    Barth was pretty heavily influenced by existentialism early in his life, but moved away from it later on, although I think he is still indebted to various thinkers for his development (who isn’t?). The early Barth was part of the movement called “dialectical theology” and there’s a famous quote from another theologian (Overbeck, I think) that says something to the effect of “Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky were our teachers,” which is in reference to nineteenth and early twentieth century liberalism. If you read the various prefaces (especially #2) to Der Romerbrief, you can really see the influence of existentialist thought on Barth’s theology, especially Kierkegaard.

    One of the interesting things that Barth brings up is the relative degrees of “conservatism.” For fundamentalists and various evangelicals, Barth represents a liberal thinker. For most of the rest of us, Barth is an exceptionally conservative figure. I think this paradox holds true in that Barth can often be a starting point for more liberal theologians, but that probably has more to do with the fact that he is the most important theologian of the twentieth century than anything else. (Note: it goes without saying that I’m using the term evangelical in a much different sense than Barth).

    In any event, good to see that you remain on schedule.

  7. Dave Mesing Says:

    Sorry for the double comment, but what I meant by that Overbeck quote is that the dialectical theologians took their inspiration from thinkers who were basically outside of the theological establishment, rather than professors, etc.

    So in that sense, it’s the beginning of a kind of existentialist theology. (Although it’s more representative of Bultmann and Tillich, among others). But my suspicion is that anyone using the idea of existentialism as an insult is operating with a very poor understanding of existentialism, which is another -ism, like postmodernism, romanticism, etc. that is basically meaningless unless it’s tied to specific thinkers, themes, or locations.

  8. Collin Says:

    I’ll just go ahead and throw a hearty Amen in there.

  9. Jeremy Says:

    Collin, sorry about mixing up schools. Also, I have to say that if Wheaton looks like the promised land you might be in hell. Glad to know you’re trying to stay sane.

    Dave, thanks for the historical background to Barth.

    I think the problem with trying to understand different theologies is dissociating political ramifications from affirmations of orthodxy. Let’s take the political issue. Here, envangelical theologians remain entirely conservative and reactionary. You have your moderates such as Milbank or a Barth who while advocates for far leftist economics are likely to be very conservative on social and moral issues (e.g. gay marriage). Then you have your more far left political theologians represented by liberation theologians and radical theologians.

    With regards to affirmation of orthodoxy things become a little more complex. Let’s say Barth and Milbank are orthodox theologians. Then you have your more conservative theologians like Driscoll or Carson who to me don’t really represent orthodoxy, or if they affirm orthodoxy it comes with a lot of really crappy theological baggage (backwards views on women, violence, or gays). These more secondary views become the major focus (say on the Bible) when historically these have never been decisive theological issues. Your third more liberal group looks like modern day process thought or someone like Tillich. I think it’s no surprise that as the years pass the emerging church becomes increasingly interested in process thought, ultimately confirming in my mind that they are not much different than liberal protestants. Finally, there’s radical theology as represented by Altizer, Caputo, or Winquist. They tend to read the tradition from a very philosophical perspective without much traditional emphasis on Biblical exegesis.

    Going back to Barth, what I have to say is that I don’t find him conservative as much as I find him orthodox. Many liberal theologians will tend to describe anything that affirms the creeds as being conservative, however I think this is unfair. Liberal theologians’ excessive demythologization of Christianity along with their Enlightenment reading of religion fail to grasp so much. I really think other guys that might look like liberal theologians would be a Don Cupitt. Cupitt claims to be a radical theologian, but if you read his work all he wants is a Christianity minus the metaphysics. He thinks a belief in God is dumb, much less an incarnation of God. Rather, he wants people to appreciate the ethical views of religion to make us better people. We have a word for that already, oh yes liberal tolerance. This was probably a really round about way to say that I don’t think evangelicals deserve the title orthodoxy.

    With regards to existential theologians, I would just consider a Tillich or a Bultmann to be a much better example. Bultmann basically hijacked Heideggerian language to describe Christian salvation and subjectivity. He framed things in terms of authenticity. Barth would never dream of making such a move.

    Also, Dave I think you’re right that the majority of people who label someone X with hopes of dismissing figure Y by associating him with movement X, generally have no clue what philosophy X actually means.
    I mean I think if I believed in moratoriums I might put a moratorium on the term postmodern. Ultimately, post-structural is much more helpful since this was actually a theoeretical movement as opposed to postmodern which attempts to characterize an epoch.

  10. Michael Smith Says:

    Jeremy, I also am starting to read Barth’s Dogmatics from the 31 vol edition. I am up to sec 4 of 1:1. I tried reading many years ago while serving a church in Bellwood Ill just down the bike trail from Weaton (12 miles). This edition help very much.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    That’s cool I wished I had the 31 volume edition available to me. Unfortunately, I’m reading on interlibrary loan from Catholic U (in DC). Needless to say this version is really old, and it’s frustrating as the Latin goes untranslated. I just finished Volume I this weekend. All I can say is that Volume is best at the end of Part 1 and beginning of Part 2 (not sure how that translated into your 31 set). I’m just glad to finally get into Volume II. Best of luck with your adventures and stayed tuned for more Barth

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