Reflections on the term “dogmatics”

The term “dogmatics” in the title of Karl Barth’s magnum opus is a far more problematic term than the word “church.” Dogmatics suggests that the author will be rigidly opinionated and arrogant in asserting his ideas. I have an acquaintance who boldly and loudly asserts that homosexuality is a perversion. He refuses to consider the possibility that it is a normal human condition which is my view. When I asked him if he had read any books about homosexuality, he said that he hadn’t and didn’t need to. He just knew that he was right. It is futile attempt a meaningful discussions with such a dogmatic person. So who would want to read a book of dogmatics, especially one that is 9,000 pages long?

I can think of three reasons: First the word dogma simply means doctrine or teaching. According to Dictionary.com, dogma is “an official system of principles or tenets concerning faith, morals, behavior, etc., as of a church.” Synonyms include doctrine, teachings, set of beliefs, philosophy. Again according to Dictionary.com, “At the turn of the 17th century, dogma entered English from the Latin term meaning ‘philosophical tenant.’ The Greek word from which it is borrowed means ‘that which one thinks is true,’ and comes ultimately from the Greek dokein, which means ‘to seem good’ or ‘think.’” The term dogmatics is used in a narrower sense of the study of theological teachings of the Christian Church. Dogmatic theology emphasizes the importance of propositional truth over experiential, sensory perceptions.

Second, we generally don’t mind listening to the dogmatic opinions of people who are well informed. When I go to my doctor I appreciate his certainty in diagnosing my symptoms. When I am a passenger in an airplane, I don’t argue with the pilot who announces that we need to fasten our seat belts due to the rough air conditions. I don’t want to go to an equivocal doctor or fly with a wishy-washy pilot.

Third, I have read enough of Church Dogmatics now to realize that Karl Barth is careful and fair in asserting his opinions. He writes at length about ideas that may differ from his own, but does not back away from clearly articulating his own convictions. A few days ago I was reading a section about the doctrine of the incarnation in volume two and encountered this statement: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.” No doubt about what Barth believes! But that statement is surrounded by a lengthy discussion of the role of the mother of Jesus, whether it is appropriate to call her “the mother of God,” the biblical references to Mary, and how the doctrine of the veneration of Mary developed historically.

So I have come to terms with the title which I understand as the teachings of the Christian Church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *