Say whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.
Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:
How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, 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!
It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.
Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).
He continues on:
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 un-theologically” 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!
There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.
No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.
Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.
Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not 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!
What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.
Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!
But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.
How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?
Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:
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.
If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.
This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.
Soli Deo Gloria