How Disastrously the Church must Misunderstand itself . . .

I'm reading volume one of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (I.1, The Doctrine of the Word of God), and he's discussing the nature of the church's talk about God. He highlights that the being of the church is Jesus Christ, and the center of the church's life is proclamation.

This proclamation must be "the repetition of His promise, repetition of the promise: 'Lo, I am with you alway!'" (58-59). Accordingly, the proclamation of the church "cannot be arbitrary religious discourse" (59). He characterizes the preacher in these terms: "the person called must be ready to make the promise given to the Church intelligible in his own words to the men of his own time. Calling, promise, exposition of Scripture, actuality--these are the decisive definitions of the concept of preaching" (59). For Barth, "proclamation must mean repetition of the divine promise. On the basis of the Word which God has spoken to His Church attention is drawn in His Church through men, to the Word which He wishes to speak to His Church" (67).

In this way, the life of the church is to center around the proclamation of the Word and the careful scrutiny of that proclamation (which is the role of theology/dogmatics). "In distinction from all scattered answers to irrelevant questions," Barth comments, "theology, and especially dogmatics, is the concentrated care and concern of the Church for its own most proper responsibility" (76). The role, and more strongly, the responsibility of the church is to guard and evaluate the proclamation of the Word.

After well-establishing this assertion (in fairly even-keeled manner up to this point), Barth sets off a small-print rhetorical explosion (the first that occurs in CD):
How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living "quite untheologically" for the demands of the day ('love'). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find no time should things become really serious and exciting!

As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency! Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance.

The whole Church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.
Karl Barth
February 22, 2013


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