Wednesday 7 December 2005

Church Dogmatics: some personal choices

Most important volume: II/2—I think this volume on the doctrine of election is the most important part of the whole Church Dogmatics, and I predict that in the future Barth’s doctrine of election will be acknowledged as his single greatest achievement.

My favourite volume: IV/1—I’ll have to choose this one, but it’s a very close contest between IV/1, IV/2 and IV/3. I think the whole of volume IV (Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation) is clearly the best part of the Church Dogmatics. Even if Barth had written nothing except volume IV, he would still be one of the greatest theological thinkers of all time.

Volume I have read the most times: I/1—for some reason I have read this one three times (I know, I really ought to get out more).

My favourite section: It’s almost impossible to decide; but I’ll probably have to choose §50 in III/3—Barth’s remarkable doctrine of evil as “the Nothingness.” (One scholar has said: “When I first read [this section on Nothingness], I felt perhaps for the first time in my life that God truly loved me.”)

My least favourite section: §51 in III/3—Barth’s doctrine of angels. Admittedly Barth’s angelology is both theologically and exegetically the best ever attempted (and it’s the only significant angelology since that of Thomas Aquinas). And admittedly, in spite of all Barth’s polemic against Bultmann, the angels in the Church Dogmatics are still relatively non-mythological beings. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling uneasy about this or any angelology; and I can’t help wondering whether Bultmann’s hermeneutic might in fact offer a better guide to interpreting the biblical angels.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...


i appreciate your zeal for barth, but i too have found his view of angels/demons/satan to be arguably the most problematic of his views.

Let me admit that i have much work to do in order to fully grasp barth, so if my issue is lack of understanding of what he's really getting at, let me know. Caveat aside, lets dig in.

It seems to me that Barth doesn't allow "the strange world of the bible" to reframe his views of A/D/S. Rather, being a child of modernism, he demytholigizes them. This problem would seem to preclude Bultmann from doing a much better job, at least to me.

What surprises me most about this is that arguably the central motif in the four Gospels is Jesus' "showdown" with demons and Satan. This is especially the case in the Synoptics.

It seems to me that Barth is inconsistenet here, b/c Jesus, the Word of God, believed in the ontic reality of demons. It seems that Barth here leaves his commitment to a Christological hermeneutic, unable to completely break with his modern roots and liberal theological past.

This is also one my main struggles with Barth followers, like T.F. Torrance (who, being a scientist, also seemed to struggle with the NT "premodern" understanding of the spirit world). I love his theology in so many ways. but his views here drive me crazy, b/c it seems that they don't faithfully apply their hermeneutic consistently.

We are all guilty of this at some level, but is easier to spot others do it in areas you think are important.

One last point. Another (possible) reason why Barth and Torrance dismiss the wealth of biblical data is that their background seems to be that of the reformed tradition. Barth especially seemed fond of Calvin to me in some ways. I wonder if they both carry the reformed doctrine of sovereignty around in their heads, which would strongly inhibit the motif of a genuine spiritual conflict taking place. All this to say that maybe the question isn't what our hermeneutic should be (Christological), but what baggage do we bring (Reformed preunderstanding of God the Father) that move us away from certain areas of scripture (Spiritual warfare), and how can we overcome it?

Blessings for your Easter Ben.


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