Saturday, 27 January 2007

A shorter dogmatics?

My friend Aaron offers a provocative call for a much shorter dogmatic: “Theology has an obesity problem – we’ve said yes to ‘super-sizing’ too many times.”


kim fabricius said...

Barth joked about length of his own dogmatics - he said the doctors had discovered that his colon was too long! But he did write a Dogmatics in Outline, even if it originated as a set of lectures.

But haven't dogmatics always been rather lengthy? Don't they have to be if they're going to cover all the territory? And great ones: to name just two, Calvin's Institutes, the editions of which were always getting longer, and Aquinas' Summa.

By the way, Barth's dogmatics has been referred to as his Moby-Dick. Which fattens the obesity issue: should the small-is-good stricture include fiction? There goes Moby-Dick itself - or you read the criminally abridged versions with all the "unimportant" bits about whaling cut out - and so long The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Middlemarch, and so on. And you ignore Faulkner and read Hemingway (who mocked Faulkner for his use of "ten-dollar words").

Of course there is good short fiction - and good short theology. But surely dogmatics is inherently a marathon, not a sprint. Even Tillich's three-volume Systematic Theology runs to nearly a thousand pages, while Jenson' superb two-volume Systematic Theology runs to 700.

Aaron mentions Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine. Yes, it's only 140 pages, but (a) it is programmatic and very tightly argued, and (b) it probably should have been longer. In his recent The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (2006), Paul DeHart describes how the book's "compactness of exposition", and its being "in many ways an obscure book", resulted in a lot of subsequent misreadings (which perhaps might have been avoided with a bit more exposition).

Of course I'm with Aaron when length is sheer verbosity; and, yes, you can always stop at 200 pages with a "to be continued" (though the sum total is still going to be the same). I think I've quoted William Sloane Coffin's wise words before: "Say things as simply as possible, but not simpler".

Finally, two cultural points. First, if it's true that dogmatics have always been rather long, perhaps the problem is a postmodern one as we move from print to IT, from word to image, and our attention span shrinks to that of a mayfly. And, second, there is an interesting suggestion that user-friendly PCs contribute to a long-windedness that was impossible with the more laborious, less easier to correct typewriter. To wit, this post! So now I shut up!

Jim said...

What Aaron wishes were done has already been done.

::aaron g:: said...

Thank you, Kim, for your 407 word observation about my 253 word post! :-)

Obviously, short = good (& long = bad) is a simplistic equation. My point is that saying much doesn’t mean saying more. When dealing with ‘faith,’ ‘God,’ and ‘truth,’ sometimes sheer silence says ‘more’ than a linguistic litany.

I continually confront this in preaching – I must leave certain matters unsaid. Articulation is not always apt.

Hello Jim: what/where do you mean?

Ben Myers said...

Well, Jim himself has just written a short systematic theology (and, incidentally, I'm also working on one at the moment).

But of course there's a difference between popularly-written accounts and "scientific dogmatics" in the proper sense -- it's the latter that tend to be huge sprawling beasts! But I should take this opportunity to mention Robert W. Jenson's Systematic Theology, which is both one of the best English-language dogmatics ever written, and one of the most concise (the two volumes are 244 pp. + 380 pp.).

Personally, I think there's a nice symbolic significance in the fact that the best and biggest works of dogmatics are never even finished: the two greatest works are Thomas's Summa theologiae and Barth's Church Dogmatics -- and both of these were evidently too big for a single life-time!

Patrick said...

What about Colin Gunton's "The Christian Faith"? It's pretty short, though I don't see many references to it in other literature (is there a longer unpublished systematics?).
Kathryn Tanner has a short systematics that's less than 200 pages, but it does leave a lot of stuff out...

jim Gordon said...

Does anyone else think Dan Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding is an excellent one volume dogmatics? And though older, Hendrickus Berkhof's The Christian Faith? I've often wished Moltmann would write a 300 page one volume dogmatics.

Ben Myers said...

Hendrikus Berkhof: yes, yes, yes. I reckon his Christian Faith is a real masterpiece -- far better than most of the bigger works. Naturally there are some problems with his christology and (non-)trinitarianism -- but very few modern dogmatic works have even come close to the exegetical seriousness of Berkhof's book. So anyway, it's good to hear that there's still someone else out there reading him!

kim fabricius said...

I also agree with Jim Gordon that Daniel Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding is a fine, not so much dogmatics, but (as in its subtitle) "introduction to Christian theology". I particularly like the three imaginary conversations among representative theologians on natural theology, the resurrection, and political theology in the appendix.

Another possibility for a short dogmatics, taken up by many theologians, is to write a little book on the Apostles' Creed, which is what Barth's Dogmatics in Outline is. Küng, Lash, Pannenbeg, and Thielicke (among big-name theologians) have produced such mini-dogmatics. Or a commentary on a confession of faith, or a catechism, like Barth's Learning Jesus Christ through the Heidelberg Catechism.

And yet another possibility, perhaps foolish, for concentrating the mind is to write a series of "Propositions" on a range of topics! :)

Christian A said...

Here's a random thought: might there be a problem at the reader's end as well as the writer's?

Yes maybe sometimes works of theology are too long...but a related problem could be that we start reading a book about Christian theology under an obligation to read all of it. Where did that obligation come from? We're quite happy to read say a whole book of Moltmann and then come back and read other Moltmann books later on. But to read half of a Moltmann book and move on is to admit defeat and to regret his verbosity (and probably to never return to that book).

Maybe both Christian writers and readers need to be more flexible on the issue of length?

J.Jones said...

"What Aaron wishes were done has already been done."

Jim, perhaps you can explain your cryptic remark?

::aaron g:: said...

This has been an interesting discussion.

I appreciated the references to some of the shorter works: Gunton, Tanner, Migliore, H. Berkhof, and books on the Creed. I’ll especially be looking forward to your book Ben!

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