The title of Church Dogmatics

I want to begin my comments on the content of Karl Barth’s massive work by considering the title. My hunch is that the words Church Dogmatics are more repelling than appealing, at least to American readers. If I were submitting a manuscript to a publisher, I would most likely avoid using the word church in the title and I would certainly not use the term dogmatics. The word church feels too limiting and the word dogmatics seems too negative. So I have pondered Barth’s choice of a title and want to share with you some of my thinking.

First of all, we have to realize that the book was written in German rather than English. The title in German is Die Kirchliche Dogmatik. (By the way, one of the primary translators and editors of the authorized English translation of Church Dogmatics was an Englishman named Geoffrey Bromiley who was a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary for nearly 30 years including the four years I attended Fuller.) Barth wrote primarily for German speaking readers who would be aware that church dogmatics was subject taught in universities in Germany and Switzerland. They would be familiar with the term. However, in America we tend to avoid the it. When I studied theology at Fuller, the term systematic theology was used rather than dogmatics.

Today I want to make a few comments on the word church. In my next post I will deal with the term dogmatics. Barth wrote primarily for the Christian Church rather than for the general public. Early in the book Barth writes, “Dogmatics is the self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God” (p. 21). Although Barth was a pastor in the Reformed Church of Switzerland, his writing encompasses the entire Church in the breadth of its denominational expressions and the depth of its history. He interacts with various theological views of his own time and carries on a dialog with Christian thinkers over the span of two thousand years. This is one of the great values of Church Dogmatics. Most books I read by Christian writers deal with the content of the Bible and attempt to apply the Scriptures to present day issues and concerns. They tend to jump from the first century to the twenty-first century ignoring all of the intervening work of thoughtful followers of Jesus Christ which shaped our contemporary views whether we know it or not.

For example when Christians today write or speak about God, they are referring to the Christian understand of God as a Trinity made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The trinitarian view of God is simply assumed by contemporary Christian writers who rarely reflect that this understanding of the nature of God developed over several centuries and that disputes over how to understand the Trinity were frequently quite contentious. In fact the first major split in the Church, the split between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, was over a disagreement of how to understand the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly there were political and social reasons for this division, but the theological reason had to do with how best to describe the Trinity.

In Church Dogmatics Karl Barth carries on a conversation with a long list of Christian thinkers of the past. Not only does he frequently quote Martin Luther and John Calvin, but he interacts with an enormous number of other writers. The last volume of Church Dogmatics has a General Index which contains almost all of the 1,000 names Barth references in the various volumes of Church Dogmatics. This astonishing list goes on for twenty pages referring thinkers from Peter Abelard to Huldrych Zwingli. I have to confess that most of these names were unknown to me. The scope of Barth’s knowledge of the work of Christian thinkers of the past is truly breathtaking. In reading the first volume of his work, I often felt as if I were listening to one end of a telephone conversation as Barth conversed with theologians of former times. I could hear what Barth was saying, but I often did not know the other side of the conversation.

My reading of Church Dogmatics so far has started to increase my understanding of the rich history of Christian thought in the Church universal.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on the second word in the title: dogmatics.

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