Saturday, 23 June 2007

Is dogmatics useful?

“Of course, dogmatics ought not to be preached: one cannot ‘use’ it immediately in pastoral care, not even in Christian education or parish study groups. But the serious study of dogmatics helps us to become acquainted with the framework of theological interconnections, and it affords us with numerous perspectives from which to perceive the ambiguities of human life as well as showing us their limits of applicability.”

—Gerhard Sauter, Protestant Theology at the Crossroads: How to Face the Crucial Tasks for Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 62.

7 Comments:

graham old said...

Absolutely agree.

The trouble with dogmatics from the pulpit is that it too often gives the impression that Dogmatics are an end in themselves.

That's just not good preaching, let alone good dogmatics.

Theodora Hawksley said...

Someone asked me recently precisely how it was that dogmatics was pastorally useful. I said it's a sort of theological ecology - managing the dogmatic 'nutrients' and establishing/maintaining the right relationships in dogmatic ecosystems makes for a good, diverse, lively habitat. For which read a faithful, joyful church. Like ecology - fascinating in itself, but only makes sense insofar as it pertains to a habitat.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Theodora -- that's a wonderfully perceptive and suggestive analogy.

Jason Goroncy said...

Ben. Check out John Webster's comments in Holiness, p. 8. I assume you have a copy. If not, buy it. It's fantastic.

vassilip said...

let me have a different view:

keeping dogmatics out of preaching is like post-modern ethics which is barren of netaphysics, and that results in violence.
the Fathers never had any hesitation in speaking openly to their flock about dogmatical matters; on the contrary.
in a world deserted of metaphysics (and dominated by reductionism) we need as never before to bring dogmatics in front.

/vassili

derek said...

"But the serious study of dogmatics helps us to become acquainted with the framework of theological interconnections, and it affords us with numerous perspectives from which to perceive the ambiguities of human life as well as showing us their limits of applicability."

I guess i don't see what he's trying to say, because if this is what dogmatics is for, then it can't help but spill into education, pastoral care and (gasp) preaching. Whatever your vocation, your theology naturally influences your work, especially (i would hope) in things like preaching, pastoral care, etc.

To think that you can divorce dogmatics from ministerial duties is naive at best i think. If he's referring to direct explication of theology, then in certain instances i agree (although i think vassilip makes a good point above). However, we must not be afraid of dogmatics in congregational life, or we have only widened the intellectual gap between minister and congregation. For a church that is supposed to be composed of people who love God with all their minds, we can't afford to "let the laity completely off the hook."

kim fabricius said...

Hi Vassilip and Derek,

Though I haven't read the new book from which Ben quotes, judging from his splendid Gateways to Dogmatics: Reasoning Theologically for the Life of the Church (2003), I am quite sure that Sauter is not suggesting that dogmatics be kept out of preaching or any other ministerial duties, or from the life of the church as such - just the opposite: if it is not dogmatically informed and infused, the life of the church will be barren - indeed it will hardly be Christian. It is just that in preaching, etc. dogmatics normally comes mediated rather than "neat". After all Aquinas' Summa, Calvin's Institutes, Barth's Dogmatics are not sermons, they are - dogmatics!

I would say that dogmatics provides both the basis and the critique of the church's life and witness. It is, if you like, the humble donkey on which the church rides, both bearing it - and occasionally biting it!

By the way, for an excellent account of how dogmatics can shape the ministry of care, I highly recommend Ellen T. Charry's By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (1997).

Oh, and I hope Jason won't mind me citing the passage to which I think he is referring in the wonderful Webster book, for the sake of those who don't have a copy: on p. 8 of Holiness (2003) Webster says "that we need to understand that theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise of holiness. Theology is an aspect of the sanctification of reason." To which I would only add a hearty "Amen!"

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