Friday, January 22, 2010

Evangelical Prolegomena: Reflections of a Newcomer to Church Dogmatics (Part 1)

I must confess that until recently my only firsthand reading of Barth was of his little book Evangelical Theology. It's a book bursting with insights on the practice of theology and I've come to Church Dogmatics expecting more of the same. So far so good.

In section two in the first volume of Church Dogmatics, Barth contends for an Evangelical, unashamedly dogmatic approach to prolegomena: "In order to give an account of the way of knowledge pursued in dogmatics, we cannot take up a position which is somewhere apart from this way or above the work of dogmatics" (p. 41). Again: "We cannot pose the question of formal dogma without immediately entering at these central points (the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ as integral to a doctrine of the Word of God) upon material dogma. Indeed, what is thought to be formal dogma is itself highly material in fact. The only point is that here at the beginning of the whole work it is not to be estimated solely according to its material signficance, but specifically according to its formal significance as the foundation of dogmatic knowledge as such" (p. 43). Formal considerations are indeed formal but are properly governed by the material content of Christian belief.

This Barth is working out in contrast to his understanding of Roman Catholic prolegomena and modern Protestant prolegomena. The former, he says, is tangled up in the presumption of a pre-dogmatic "ecclesiastical reality," while the latter is ensnared by a "prior anthropological possibility." Whether by way of enclosing divine action within the confines of the church or by way of concocting an account of the human condition external to the substance of the gospel, these approaches begin in the wrong places when it comes to getting prolegomena off the ground. We are left, then, with "dogmatic prolegomena," the exercise of mapping out the path to dogmatic knowledge from the standpoint of dogma itself. (To clarify, in utilizing this line of thinking I would opt to spell out how it doesn't necessarily entail a vicious circularity. It is possible pre-critically to encounter God and acquire via Scripture knowledge of him and after this to discern the essentials of a strong theological method and from there launch out into more formal theological study.)

Any thoughts on developing dogmatic prolegomena?

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