Friday, March 18, 2011

Barth I.1 §7.2-3

In these two sections, Barth discusses dogmatics as a science, and finally wraps up with a summary and a foreshadowing of the next section.

§7.3 is a short summary and looking ahead in which Barth summarizes his concept of the three forms of the Word of God, the Word of God proclaimed (preaching), the Word of God written (scripture), and the Word of God Revealed.  The task of dogmatics is to measure church proclamation by the criterion of dogmatics, i.e., the Word of God.  This will take place by testing church proclamation by scripture, which in turn points to the Word of God revealed, i.e., Jesus Christ.  Barth then prepares us for what is coming with an introduction to the importance of a doctrine of revelation, which will be the focus of §8. There is little new or surprising in §7.3, so I will leave off from that now and move to §7.2, which has much more fodder for discussion.

In §7.2 Barth reiterates his claim that dogmatics is a science.  Now, before I register my disagreement with this term, let me try to explain what I think Barth means.

Barth begins by discussing regular and irregular dogmatics.  Irregular dogmatics, according to Barth, makes up the majority of theology throughout Christian history.  There is nothing wrong with irregular dogmatics, and Barth says that he does not wish to disparage it (but he has given it the name "irregular" which in itself connotes some disparagement).  What I believe Barth means by irregular dogmatics is non-systematic dogmatics.  He refers to many theologians who engaged in irregular dogmatics, including, most notably, Martin Luther.  Irregular dogmatics is irregular in that it is thematic and incomplete, usually arising from a specific situation.  It does not seek to provide a complete discussion of the field of theology, but only bits and pieces as are needed at the time.  Irregular dogmatics usually takes the aphoristic style.

Regular dogmatics on the other hand seeks to be complete, academic, rigorous, and meant to be taught at a school.  Regular dogmatics is systematic in style, vs. the aphoristic nature of irregular dogmatics.   It is regular dogmatics that Barth claims to be pursuing in his Church dogmatics.  Regular dogmaticians of church history include the Reformation giants Melancthon and Calvin. 

Having dispensed with this topic, Barth begins to talk about why he would like to insist that dogmatics is a science.  In what way is dogmatics a science?  A few times Barth says that the "scientific nature of dogmatics lies in its special objectivity." (CD I.1 §7.2, p 278. Cf. p. 283). Now, the term objectivity is a red flag word for me, as I will explain below.  Yet, to be clear, what I think Barth means by this is that it is objective insofar as it is oriented to its object, that is, the Word of God.  The Word of God becomes the object of this enquiry.   For Barth follows up the previous quote (actually in the same sentence) as follows: "...special objectivity, namely, in its orientation to the question of dogma." (CD I.1 §7.2, p 278.)  Barth admits that due to education and culture, a person has certain "presuppositions."  Yet, according to Barth, these must submit to the Word of God, again he writes:
"Now it is obvious that everyone who works at dogmatics works more or less with specific intellectual presuppositions.  The only question is whether in addition to these he also knows the sign of the divine promise [i.e., Holy Scripture, in think?] which is set up in the Church and whether he is able and willing, in a way that admits no proof, to take this sign so seriously that in this context  its direction takes absolute precedence over all the directions he might owe to the humanities." (CD I.1 §7.2, p 283).
Therefore, for Barth, Scripture provides the objectivity, by overriding personal, educational, and cultural presuppositions.

Barth goes on to list three things that a dogmatics must do in order to be scientific.  1) it must be devoted to the problem of Church proclamation; 2) it must aim to serve Church proclamation by criticizing it and testing it by the Word of God; and 3) it must question the Church proclamation by its agreement (or non-agreement) with the Word of God. 

Now it is unintelligible to me how any of these three tasks of dogmatics make it scientific or not. 

Now to my disagreement with Barth.  I do not agree that dogmatics is a science.  What is the meaning of the word science and how should we use it?  I think science, at least as it has come to be used, has a very specific and limited meaning.  It refers to the very specific process of investigating phenomena through the scientific method.  This means coming up with a hypothesis, testing your hypothesis through a controlled experiment, eliminating variables, retesting the hypothesis again and again for verifiable results, and only after such a process, generating a theory.  Science is what happens in biology and chemistry, physics and genetics.  Theology on the other hand is not susceptible to the scientific method.  One cannot test and re-test the doctrine of the Word of God in a lab.

I think what Barth means by science, that is, a rational pursuit of knowledge of a given subject, is no longer a helpful way to refer to theology.  Now, as to the general usage of the word science in Barth's time, I am ignorant, but all I can say is that I do not think that it is helpful, or descriptively accurate to define dogmatics as a science in this day and age.

This moves me to my second point, and that is Barth's claim of "objectivity."  Is it possible for the Word of God, especially in the Bible, to overcome our "presuppositions"?  Can we become objective, can we escape our cultural, educational, and personal biases in order to become completely detached observers of any event, even the event of the Word of God?  I would say no.  One advance of the last half of the 20th century was the exploding of the myth of objectivity.  Nothing is objective. Nothing and no one can escape their point of view.  What little I understand about Einstein's theory of relativity seems to explode the myth of objectivity even within the confines of hard science.  We cannot escape our own perspective.  We cannot become purely objective. 

Take for instance, one of the most objective objects in the world, the camera.  A camera has no presuppositions, no education, it views the world as it is.  When a picture is taken, it takes in the light as it is.  Yet, even a camera cannot escape one thing, and that is the location from which it takes a picture, that is, its perspective.  Take for example the following picture.  From the perspective of this picture, this supposedly objective view of reality, it appears as if these four people are jumping out of this hat.  Now, I suppose that it is possible that this is the objective truth.  There could be a giant had in the desert with a trampoline inside providing us with this picture, but reality is likely the more simple explanation of forced perspective.  The camera is on the ground close to the hat, making it look big, while the four people are off in the distance behind the hat.  Even a camera cannot escape its point of view. 

Now, the exploding of the myth of objectivity does not mean that theology need not be rational or systematic.  But it does mean, that its conclusions must be modest, understanding that we all come from a unique perspective, and that unique perspective shapes how we see things.  More importantly, it makes it all the more important to try and understand our own perspective, our own views and context.  Knowing where you stand can help you understand what you are seeing.  If that camera knew that it were positioned on that ground close to the hat and that the people were off in the distance, it might not be tempted to think that there are people jumping out of a giant hat. 

Well this post has begun to ramble.  If you have made it to this point, I laud your patience.  I will leave it for now, but perhaps more musings soon.


  1. Keith,
    Thank you for your summary of the two sections.

    On the issue of Barth’s language, he did use words like subject and object a little differently than we do today, I think, as you point out about his use of the word, scientific.

    But I wonder at your second point regarding the possibility of pure objectivity. I think Barth would agree with you that our inherent human capabilities certainly make pure objectivity impossible, that pure objectivity is not a human capability. However, I believe he would reply to you that when we are met by the Word of God revealed to us as we hear proclamation or study the Scripture or analyze some church doctrine, then we are allowed to escape the limitations of our own perspective, our point of view. This confrontation of us by the Other, which allows us to experience knowledge that would otherwise elude us, is an integral part of Barth’s dogmatics as far as I understand him. I do not have the volume with me now but will try to provide you with a quote that illustrates what I am saying when I return home.


  2. Barth Student,
    I agree, at least conceptually with Barth that a confrontation with the Word of God can be a truly objective experience in which a person is removed from their subjective state. Yet, the Word of God, as an event, cannot then be captured, that event cannot be recorded so to speak as the "Word of God."

    Therefore, when Barth says that the scientific nature of dogmatics lies in its "special objectivity," this seams like a meaningless statement to me. If he is trying to bolster the "objectivity" of dogmatics as a science, this objectivity created by the event of the Word of God cannot be captured and then used in the process of dogmatics. Why claim "objectivity" for dogmatics when this objectivity is only available in the concrete and specific encounter with the Word of God.

    So, to me, it appears as if an encounter with the Word of God can be an objective experience, that objectivity disappears when one is no longer in the midst of this event. So, in the task of dogmatics, the measuring of church proclamation by the Word of God, this objectivity is no longer present.

    In all, Barth's claim of objectivity or science with regard to the work of dogmatics does not seem like a real possibility to me.