Friday, March 05, 2010

Barth on Theology: A Joyful Science

I've been thinking a lot about how my goal should be to have a positive, constructive theology. I think critical thinking is important. I think that there are many things that require deconstructing in the light of better ways of thinking. Some (but hopefully not most) of what I talk about on this blog falls into this category. This is important. But cynicism is not good, as another blog has recently reminded us.

I do not want to come across as cynical on this blog or in my future as a theologian--even though there is much of a critical nature which requires saying, and even though in my present stage I am still working through many criticisms toward a more positive and constructive description of Christianity. I will never come to a finalized version, of course, but I do want to be able to articulate it in a way that is not merely reactionary.

In light of this, I post for you a fairly lengthy excerpt from Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation about the task of theology. I've already reduced this excerpt considerably, but kept a lot in here for the sake of those of my theological companions who will want to read the finer details. However, I've put in bold some of the stand-out lines relating to what I've said above. Oh, and by the way, when Barth says "community", he means the church.

"The community cannot dispense with theology, more especially in relation to the witness of its word, but on a broader view in relation to the whole of its ministry in every form. In theology the community gives a critical account, both to itself and to the world which listens with it, of the appropriateness or otherwise of its praise of God, its preaching, its instruction, its evangelistic and missionary work, but also of the activity which cannot be separated from these things, and therefore of its witness in the full and comprehensive sense and in relation to its origin, theme and content. In the ministry of theology the community tests its whole action by the standard of its commission, and finally in the light of the Word of the Lord who gave it....

None of these four elements [biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology] may be omitted, nor should any fail to be brought into connexion with the other three, if theology is to be at every point critical scholarship in the context of the ministry of the community, and therefore the fulfilment of the self-criticism which is so bitterly necessary in every age and place. Theology as a whole and in all its disciplines is a threatened and dangerous undertaking, since it is menaced by every kind of human pride. Can we and should we really attempt it, is a question which may well be asked, and which is in fact asked in many Christian circles....

Indeed, its only purpose is to make itself superfluous. But since the rest of Christian ministry is also a human undertaking and therefore in need of criticism and correction, it differs from foreign missionary work in the fact that it can become wholly superfluous only in the [light of glory]. Meanwhile it has necessarily to be pursued, though on account of its vulnerability with the greatest prudence and caution.

It is sound and healthy when in all its four elements it keeps its eye fixed on its problem and theme, and brings these to light. It is unhealthy and more dangerous than useful when it falls victim to human pride and loses sight of its problem and theme, when in different ways it posits itself absolutely in the sense of Greek investigation of God and things divine, and when there is a consequent disintegration of its four elements into a relation of mutual indifference or concealed or open hostility.

Biblical and exegetical theology can become a field of wild chasing and charging when it bows to the idol of a supposedly normative historicism and when therefore, without regard to the positively significant yet also warning experiences of ecclesiastical and dogmatic history, or to its coresponsibility in the work of systematic theology (in which it may perhaps make a dilettante incursion), or to the fact that ultimately theology in the form of practical theology must aim to give meaningful directions to the ministry of the community in the world, it claims autonomy as a kind of Vatican within the whole.

Similarly ecclesiastical and dogmatic history, if it does not take up the question of the meaning and telos of this history, may well cut itself off and become for both systematic and practical theology no more than an unimportant list of strange facts or of arbitrarily undertaken constructions which seek to pass for facts.

Similarly, and most of all, systematic theology, if it isolates itself from the biblical witness and its history in the community, or if it thinks it should master them and thus does violence to them, will seek and find in them only a little material for the different stones of its arbitrarily conceived and unfounded system of thought, from which practical theology will certainly not be able to gather any binding directions.

Finally, practical theology itself will seriously degenerate if it becomes only a working doctrine which is orientated by every conceivable practical consideration but not by Scripture, history and dogma, and which is therefore theologically empty. These are the many sins of which one might well be guilty in theology.

In the light of what we have already said, it is surely clear that before the end of all things there is no age whose work cannot be taken up again and continued and improved. Together with the whole ministry of the community, the critical scholarship of theology itself stands in constant need of criticism, correction and reform.... Always there must be serious questioning, analysis, argumentation, construction, discussion and therefore directly or indirectly, and preferably only indirectly, polemics. From time to time, though not all the time, a little of the notorious [theological madness] is thus in place.

This does not alter the fact, however, that in itself and as such theology is supremely positive and peaceable, that it fosters peace, and that it is thus to be pursued soberly, good-humouredly, without any nervous excitement, and particularly without too much petty, self-opinionated bickering.... It is to be noted further that when it is conceived and executed correctly and resolutely, yet also freely and modestly, theology is a singularly beautiful and joyful science..., so that it is only willingly and cheerfully or not at all that we can be theologians.

Two points may be made in conclusion. The first is that in solidarity with the community theology in all its movements must always have in view the surrounding world and its thought and aspiration, its action and inaction, not to draw from it its standards, and certainly not to parley and compromise with it, but in order to maintain a constant awareness of whom and what it speaks when it speaks of man, and also in order that it may bring the [faith] before those who happen to come to its notice in its inner consistency as the intellectus fidei, thus making its own contribution to the presentation of the likeness of the kingdom of God.

Since it cannot do more than this, it will spare both the world and itself the pain of a specific apologetic, the more so in view of the fact that good dogmatics is always the best and basically the only possible apologetics. Those who are without or partly without hear theologians best when these do not speak so ardently to them but pursue their own way before their eyes and ears. Correctly conceived and executed, theology will present itself even to the community and its members in such a way that it cannot fail to be noticed. For it will not be an alchemy remote from life, but [our task being done].

All indolent talk of non-theological laymen will thus be quietly refuted. For if theology understands and regards itself as an integrating element in the ministry of the community, the conclusion is natural enough that every Christian is responsible for it and has indeed to think of himself as a theologian."

- Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 879-882 (all emphases mine)

1 comment:

mclaren.ic said...

Great post here, and thanks for the link up, Jon.

Hope all is well in Aberdeen. I miss it for sure.