Church, Theology, and Science

“As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.” That is Karl Barth’s headline as he begins Church Dogmatics in the first volume of what became an enormously long work. Under this headline are three words which form a title for the first section of the work: The Church, Theology, and Science. What does Karl Barth have to say initially about each of these terms?

Barth writes that dogmatics is a theological discipline and that theology is a function of the Church. “The Church confesses God as it talks about God” (page 3). Barth says that the Church does this “first by its existence in the action of each individual believer. And it does so secondly by its specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and administering the sacraments, in worship, and in its internal and external works of love among the sick, weak and those in jeopardy.” (page 3) To say that Church engages in theology means that it talks about God. The word theology comes from two Greek words: theos meaning God and logos meaning word. Barth also issues a cautionary word about the Church when he writes, “It realizes that it is exposed to fierce temptations as it speaks of God, and it realizes that it must give an account to God for the way in which it speaks” (page 3).

In the broad sense of the term, everyone does theology in that everyone talks about God. But Barth writes that in a more narrow sense there are three overlapping specialized areas of theology:
1) Biblical theology, which is the question of the basis of theology,
2) Practical theology, which is the question of the goal of theology, and
3) Dogmatic theology, which is the question of the distinctive utterance of the Church. In small print Barth refers to Church history as “an auxiliary science indispensable to exegetical, dogmatic and practical theology” (p. 5)

In seminary I was exposed to each of these areas of theology, but I focused more on the first two. First, I concentrated on biblical theology including learning both Greek and Hebrew and hermeneutics which is the big word for Bible interpretation. Secondly, I focused on practical theology which included preaching and pastoral care. I now realize that since my graduation from seminary in 1970 I have neglected the study of systematic theology which Barth calls dogmatics. So for me reading Church Dogmatics is major corrective to my ongoing theological education.

I am not accustomed to thinking of theology as a science. To me science deals in the material world with observable data and verifiable experiments while theology deals with intangibles of language and faith. So in what way does Barth consider theology a science? Using formal language Barth describes six characteristics of science. And at this point the editors step in to clarify these requirements which they list as
1) formal consistency,
2) inherent consistency,
3) openness to control through a community of verifiers,
4) antecedent credibility,
5) impartiality, and
6) formalisability.” (page 8).
In Barth’s words this last term means “the possibility of all the propositions being broken up into axioms and theorems and demonstrated on this basis.” (p. 8)

As I understand Barth’s use of the word science, it refers to a method of exploring data rather than the data itself. For Barth, the data of theology, of dogmatics, is the Bible and the writings of the Church over its two thousand year existence. This data can be studied in the same manner as a scientist studies a fish.

Of course Barth is aware that theology is not like other sciences, but he insists that it cannot submit to standards which are valid for other sciences. In a wonderful sentence about theology, Barth writes, “It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos” (page 10).

So in the opening pages of Church Dogmatics Barth announces these three major themes. In the following volumes he will concern himself with the Church and its distinctive talk about God. And he will do this with the painstaking completeness and precision of a scientist carefully and systematically dissecting a fish.

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