Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading Dogmatics in Outline

University of Bonn
My first significant exposure to Karl Barth was in a theology class at Fuller Theological Seminary. As a result of his doctoral work on Barth, the professor littered his lectures with references to Barth. I liked what I heard.

One of our assignments for the class was to write a paper on one theologian’s viewpoint on any aspect of the Church. Feeling ambitious, I thought I’d take a stab at the Swiss theologian I’d been hearing so much about. I made the short walk to the library and with some assistance from the online catalogue I located his seminal Church Dogmatics. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. There, before my eyes were 14, thick 800 pages volumes—each cased in a solid black hardbound cover with “Church Dogmatics” written in an unassuming gold typeface. I opened up the yellowing pages to discover small print with virtually no paragraph breaks and no headings anywhere to be found. I fruitlessly tried to find something to work with, but Dogmatics was an impenetrable fortress. Thoroughly beaten, I wrote a paper on Calvin instead.

In another assignment for the same class I admitted my admiration for Barth’s thinking but was too intimidated to read his books. In the margin of the paper, my professor wrote in large yellow highlighter: “Don’t Be!! Try Dogmatics in Outline”. Thankfully, I took his advice. Since then I’ve written a number of papers on Barth and read copious amounts of his work—ranging from his massive Dogmatics to his shorter occasional pieces through secondary sources offering their own interpretation of the man’s theology.

In Barth I’ve discovered an outstanding mind that loves God, serves the Church and wishes to communicate just who God has shown himself to be. Barth never fails to leave me reflective, challenged, and in a deeper place of worship.

Still, Barth is a challenge. He expects his audience to rise to his level. He writes with originality and a style that is exclusively his own. Reading Barth forces you to leave a lot behind and meet him on his terms. Consequently, reading Barth, while ultimately worthwhile, is a battle not for the faint of heart.

So with that caveat, here are some helpful hints about reading Barth and specifically Dogmatics in Outline.

  1. The Nature of Dogmatics
Dogma is an ugly word these days. It has connotations of rigid customs and unyielding doctrine. It reeks of religion divorced from revelation. It’s systems without the Spirit.

For Barth these caricatures are just that. For him dogmatics is a positive science. Its one task seems is to faithfully, accurately, and positively describe both the subject and object of its inquiry: The triune God who has revealed himself fully in the person of Jesus Christ in whom we participate and know through the Holy Spirit as testified by Holy Scripture.

In short, Dogmatics is that which seeks to say something very purposeful and meaningful about God. It’s a work in the Church and of the Church. Following Anselm’s famous medieval dictum, it is a matter of “faith seeking to understand.”

  1. It’s not an abridgment of Church Dogmatics
This is a common misunderstanding. Church Dogmatics hovers around 10,000 pages and is Barth’s major work. Dogmatics in Outline clocks in at around 150. It would be nice if it was a summary, but it’s not. This is what he had to say about Outline:

“Everything in this Outline is treated very concisely. Many important problems of dogmatics are mentioned only briefly or not at all. Therefore, reading this book cannot take the place of studying the Dogmatik. At best it can inspire and initiate that study. ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat’ (2 Thess. 3:10 rsv).”

I think Barth is underestimating the value of Outline, but is warning is well heeded.

  1. It’s a Transcript of Lectures
The pages of Outline comes from a series of lectures Barth gave in the semi-ruins of a lecture hall at the University of Bonn during the summer of 1946 in the aftermath of the devastating World War II. The lectures were given at 7 am and began by the singing of a hymn or a Psalm. Then Barth would read the relevant portion of the Apostle’s Creed and lecture upon it without notes.

Looking back, Barth felt the lectures were “a document of our time, which has once more become a time ‘between the times’—and not only in Germany.” A key phrase in Outline ran thus: “There is only one Lord, and his Lord is the Lord of the world.” More so, he would emphatically point out this Lord is Jesus Christ who is also a Jew.

Many, if not most, of the people that attended the lectures were not Christians.  For Barth it made no difference and would say “Look, the alternatives are simple: it’s either knowledge, or rank foolishness, so here I am in front of you, like a teacher in the lowest class of a Sunday School, who has something to say which a mere four year old can understand.” “The world was lost, but Christ was born. Rejoice, O Christendom.”

So if it helps, remember that these lectures were given in the shadow of a deeply divisive and bloody decade where its fallout was still being felt—all the way down to the semi-ruins of the school itself.

  1. Read Slowly and Carefully
Barth demands slow and careful reading. Reading Barth isn’t a race. Each chapter is rather self-contained. Seek to understand what you can. If you don’t grasp it all—join the club.

Thankfully, Barth begins each chapter with a summary or thesis statement for the chapter. Use this as a guide for your reading. Barth’s making a point. The chapter defends his point.

Pick up what you can. What stands out? What sounds odd? What makes sense? What doesn’t?

  1. Take notes
Closely related to a slow and careful reading is the taking of notes. Read with a notebook and pen handy. Write in the margin of the book. This is a helpful practice for coming back to it later. It might also jog your memory of that great insight you had but can’t remember now that we’re finally discussing it.

  1. Have fun
God loves a learner. Make this fun. If you’re banging your head against a wall, give it a rest. Move on to something else that’s making more sense or doing a better job of catching your fancy. Perhaps you can come back to it later. Perhaps you’ll never come back to it. Just don’t make it a chore.

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