Saturdays with Karl {Karl Barth, that is}

A humbling, necessary, and timely reminder:

Even if only from the standpoint of the end, or from without, God’s contingent visitation does affect the existence of man, and therefore the gift of its promise by faith is a divine determination and claiming of the concrete being of man, of myself. Without this, theology would become the irrelevant wisdom of spectators outside the Church. There would be knowledge only in the dependent form of an imitative formal participation in the knowledge of the Church and faith. If the latter were to fail, then, as Anselm rightly stated, such a theology would lose its power of knowledge. But theology neither does nor can at any time find human safeguards against the danger of becoming the irrelevant wisdom of spectators outside the Church, and therefore a-theology. Faith, regeneration, conversion, existential encounter, are no doubt indispensable prerequisites of dogmatic work, yet not to the extent that they imply an experience and attitude, a desire and activity, a knowledge and achievement of the theologian, so that his theology is a personal cry, an account of his biographical situation, but to the extent that they imply the grace of divine predestination, the free gift of the Word and the Holy Spirit, the act of calling the Church, which must always come upon the theologian from the acting God in order that he may really be what does and what his name suggests. 

Naturally, the Church can and should undertake and execute its own self-examination of itself with the human application of human means. But whether in so doing it acts as the Church and therefore knows God in faith; whether the results of its action is true and important criticism and correction and not worse perversion of Christian utterance, does not depend upon itself. Clearly, the presence of any distinctive and decisive determination of dogmatics, the decision as to what is or is not true in dogmatics, is always a matter of the divine election of grace. In this respect the fear of the Lord must always be the beginning of wisdom. This the often discovered difficulty of all theology, especially dogmatic theology. (Karl Barth, Dogmatics I.1. 021)

What I hear Barth saying is that in the theological task, we do not claim God; God claim us. We cannot lead ourselves into the knowledge of God; God, by faith, leads us to know Him as He is. If theology is not measured by the cadence of faith it cannot and will not lead to a greater knowledge of its subject.

To this, the theologian must humbly subordinate his work to the greater and more mysterious work of God.

Dogmatics must always be undertaken as an act of penitence and obedience. But this is possible only as it trusts in the uncontrollable presence of its ontic and noetic basis, in the revelation of God promised to the Church, and in the power of faith apprehending the promise…The act of faith, which means, however, its basis in the divine predestination, the free act of God on man and his work, is always the condition by which dogmatic work is made possible but by which it is also called in question with final seriousness. (Karl Barth, Dogmatics I.1.022)

As with all matters of faith, we are thrown on the rocks of God’s mercy. Help us, Lord.

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