Thursday, June 12, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §23.1 "The Formal Task of Dogmatics" pp. 797-812

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §23 states: "Dogmatics invites the teaching Church to listen again to the Word of God in the revelation to which Scripture testifies. It can do this only if for its own part it adopts the attitude of the hearing Church and therefore itself listens to the Word of God as the norm to which the hearing Church knows itself to be subject."

In section §23 ("Dogmatics as a Function of the Hearing Church") and in subsection §23.1 ("The Formal Task of Dogmatics"), Barth starts with this fundamental truth:
...the Church is first and foremost a hearing Church, and only then and as such a teaching Church. Therefore in relation to dogmatics as a function of the Church the following points especially have to be made. Dogmatics is a function of the hearing Church, and stands under the Word of God as the norm to which the Church in its fundamental character as a hearing Church is subject. In consequence it must itself seek above all to listen; and its primary function consists in inviting and guiding the Church in its second character as a teaching Church to listen afresh to the Word of God (797). 
And then he continues with this fundamental truth - that dogmatics starts with preaching - and we need to strive after what this means - noting that there will be ambiguity in preaching's relation to scripture:
The fact from which dogmatics starts and to which it returns is the human word of Church proclamation. This fact is equivocal and therefore dogmatics is necessary. The goal of the dogmatic task is that the human word of Church proclamation should no longer be equivocally, but unequivocally, pure doctrine, that there should no longer be various opinions about what men say to each other in this matter but that it should be said and heard as the Word of God. The circumstances are that in the proclamation of the Church men undertake to impart to other men communications about God and man’s relation to Him, instruction and advice about this relationship and therefore about their own inner and outer life. This is done with a reference to the Bible and a dependence on its received interpretation, but also under the conditions of the external and intellectual historical situation in which they and their hearers are placed, under the conditions of their own personal being and willing, experience and insight, and subject to the limits thus imposed upon them. The ambiguity arising from these circumstances does not consist in the fact that the position in which preachers and hearers are together placed is in one way or another unfavourable, misleading, oppressive and adverse to these communications, directions and advice. It will always be adverse in some way. Again, the ambiguity does not consist in the fact that the sincerity, genuineness, depth and power of the human word of the preacher may leave something to be desired. This will always be the case in some sense. Even at worst, these possibilities cannot prevent the proclamation of the Church from being pure doctrine. The ambiguity arises rather from the fact that even under the most favourable personal and historical conditions the reference to, and dependence on, the Bible may rest upon and consist in an illusion, that instead of the proclamation of the Word of God a very human error may be the secret of the whole process. The ambiguity is not overcome even when we have reason to note the fellowship of preachers and hearers as evidence of a very vital Church life, and in particular to regard the preacher as a very earnest, tested and experienced Christian (798-799).
How does the Church address the ambiguity of preaching's relation to scripture, and its sometimes error? Aha, that is the role and function of dogmatics, which critiques and at the same time honors and builds up preachers.
Dogmatics now becomes necessary as a critique of this ambiguous phenomenon. At one and the same time it disciplines and honours preachers and their hearers by telling them that in their work they are not left alone. They are not left alone with the favourable or less favourable conditions of their work. Nor are they left alone with its immanent laws and the knowledge obtainable from the understanding of these laws. Certainly the object of this critique is that Church proclamation should speak of God better. The implications of such an improvement are far reaching and go beyond all the improvement that can be achieved within Church proclamation as a human activity by human standards and in man’s own strength. Or, rather, the aim is an improvement deriving from and effected by the fact that the human reflection and action that are seriously demanded are confronted in all their problematic character by quite another reflection and action—that is, God’s. From Church proclamation, and therefore from both preacher and hearers, it is required that they should accept as the exclusive possibility and the exclusive norm of their reflection and action the fact that, in what Church preaching says of God, God Himself speaks for Himself. It is on this fundamental truth that dogmatics has to insist in the matter of Church proclamation and its content (799-800).
In doing this, what else does dogmatics accomplish? A call to order and unity in the Church.
Dogmatics is, therefore, a call to order and unity in the Church. It is not an indeterminate call. It is one which is quite definitely determined by the existence of the first two forms of the Word of God. And if we are to define the character of this call in its formal sense, we must say that it is first a call to the teaching Church to hear, that is, to listen to Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. The teaching of the Church is a human action, and as such it is as little guaranteed as any other human action against slipping from obedience into disobedience, from the doing of the Word of God into the doing of human will or fancy (802).
This Church - called to order and unity - in order to be a teaching Church, must be a hearing Church first.
If the teaching of the Church is an uncertain action from the human standpoint, the teaching Church will not only have to have heard, if it is to continue to be the Church, but it will constantly have to hear again—not to hear any kind of voice, but to hear specifically the voice which has called the Church into being and to which all Church proclamation must give some sort of answer. If it is not to disown the promise and in that way cease to be the Church, the Church is committed to a struggle against the acute chronic diseases from which its proclamation must constantly suffer. But this being the case, its only resource is to seize the weapon of continually listening. But it must listen in such a way that its whole life is put in question. It must listen in a readiness that its whole life should be assailed, convulsed, revolutionised and reshaped. It must listen for the sake of its teaching. For even allowing that it will not be a perfect work, a new doctrine can be rightly propounded only in so far as it proceeds from a new act of listening. But the word to which it listens must always be the Word of God. It actually has to go back to its startingpoint. It has to show the self-denial and determination to start all over again from that point. Of course, it has to do this as the Church which is marked by all that has existed and occurred in the interval, not in unfaithfulness but in faithfulness, not in ingratitude but in gratitude, not with violence but with regard for the various forms of teaching which have so far been granted to it with more or less human clarity or obscurity, in which and with which it has lived up to the present—yet radically prepared for the fact that to-day, to-morrow and the day after the whole of its treasure will again have to be enlightened and illuminated, assessed and weighed by the Word of God. The redemption of Church proclamation consists in its purification, and its purification consists in the fact that it is proclamation of what has been heard afresh. It takes place as the Church which teaches Jesus Christ turns from teaching to hearing Him. This is the necessity which dogmatics has to represent. Its task is to summon to an active consideration of this necessity (804).
And dogmatics has a task - to help the Church hear rightly:
Its concern must be that Jesus Christ should again be heard in His Church as the Lord of the Church. This is its only possible concern. The fact that it is so always justifies the claim of dogmatics even when it is not made effectively as it should be. But just because of this fact there is danger on both sides in the element of tension between dogmatics and the teaching Church, in the occasional gnostic arrogance of dogmatics over against the teaching Church, and in the occasional stubbornness of the teaching Church over against dogmatics. When it resists dogmatics, is the Church really refusing to listen to the voice of its Lord? And how is it going to excuse that? But perhaps dogmatics is not demanding a hearing for the voice of the Lord of the Church, but only for itself, and in that case is not the Church justified in refusing to be disturbed by this type of dogmatics? But again, is it not disastrous if it then tries to escape the rightful claim of dogmatics? The hearing which dogmatics must demand from the teaching Church is a fresh hearing of the promise which is the basis of the Church and its message. The Word of God became flesh. The prophetic and apostolic witness has been proclaimed in the world. The Church itself has its origin and continuance on the basis and in the power of this happening. Therefore the Church has the promise that Jesus Christ wills to be present in its midst and to speak through it, that this presence and voice of His is to be its life, and that living in Him and through Him it is to be the light of the world (806). 
In this task, dogmatics has the responsibility to the Church itself away from its own will and its tendency towards heresy:
What the Church does and teaches ceases to be service of this kind the moment, as we have already put it, it slips out of obedience. But slips in what sense? The fundamental answer is: In the sense of the self-will, the self-righteousness and therefore inevitably the idolatry of the men who compose it. All the Church’s members have this self-will implanted in them, and therefore in nuce [in germ] they have self-righteousness and idolatry as well. At every moment and in every situation the danger threatens that members of the Church may want the Word of God without God, bringing it under their power and understanding, and applying it according to their own good pleasure. When Church proclamation is placed by heresy in the service of specific alien interests, when for this end it is intentionally given an alien sense, when its development is palpably distorted by an intentional self-alienation from the Church, it is only a visible outbreak of the danger which constantly threatens the Church, even where there is no such intention and it would be repudiated with horror. No heresy has ever had the original intention of being heresy; it has become so only when and where a first unintended lapse from obedience has not been noted and resisted in time. For this reason the Church must not wait until the outbreak of open heresy before judging its activity and teaching by its rightness as service of Jesus Christ, before being ready to listen afresh (807).
It cannot be overlooked how many bitter and painful straggles against heresy would have been avoided if the Church had been on its guard at the right time, at the moment when heresy was still in its early stage, if not of innocence at least of unself-consciousness, or if self-examination, the call to listen again, and a readiness to do so, had been a living reality in the Church in the more peaceful preceding period. We may boldly affirm that if dogmatics had always been on the watch and its claim had always been heeded, there would have been no need for councils, dogmas, anathema, reformation and schism. The fact that these evils were necessary was the inevitable consequence of ignoring the summons to listen or unwillingness to act upon it or a combination of both (807).
An additional task for dogmatics is helping the Church listen rightly and staving off pre-heretical deviation, which in the end will lead to heresy, too.
Before there is such a thing as heresy in the Church, there exists a possibility of forgetting that even the Church which teaches correctly cannot teach in its own name and competence, from the resources of its own wisdom and self-determination. Once this is forgotten, then the position which Jesus Christ occupies in its midst becomes only honorary. He ceases to be the actual ruler of the Church. It bears His name, but in practice it is the Church that governs itself by its own will and action. But where this is the case, every word of the Church’s proclamation is a deviation, even if anything seriously deserving the name of heresy is still in the remote distance. The Church has to listen, therefore, in order that this forgetfulness may be combatted at the central point where Jesus Christ Himself reminds the Church of Himself (807-808). 
The real formal task of dogmatics has particular relevance to such pre-heretical deviations. Over against their possibility, it reminds us of the possibility of listening to the voice of Jesus Christ. To react clear-sightedly and sharply against such possibilities and at the right point and in the right sense to oppose to them the other possibility of listening is the proper art of dogmatics, at least on its formal side. The more quickly, intimately and penetratingly it reacts in this way against the Church that still teaches correctly, the better it will be for the whole Church (808-809).
Of course, it is not the job of dogmatics to describe heresy per se, this is ultimately the job of the whole Church.
It cannot be the business of dogmatics to establish and proscribe a new heresy as such, to stigmatise individual personalities and movements in the Church as heretical, i.e., as standing outside the Church. If it has to oppose polemically certain types of teaching, personalities and movements, basically this can mean only that it discloses in them the danger of deviation and of the emergence of a new heresy. Often this will have to be done by showing that they are a renewal and repetition of old errors long since rejected by the Church. Sometimes, then, it will have to note that a particular doctrine is nothing but a recurrence of this or that error, that the error has long since been rejected as a heresy, not by dogmatics, but by the Church, that for many years past the Church has found it quite impossible to proclaim it, and that therefore it can only be repudiated afresh. Of course, we cannot exercise too much care and discretion when in the course of dogmatic investigation and exposition we fasten historical antecedents of this kind on contemporary teachers. Nor can we be too cautious in attaching the labels of ancient heresies. For the real errors which it is desired to check in this way may not really be touched by these analogies with previous historical heresies. In point of fact, we may be dealing with new errors which have never previously existed. Errors of this kind may be characterised and combatted by dogmatics as an increasing danger; but they cannot be condemned and defined as heresies destructive of the Church, so long as the Church itself has not made any new decision with regard to them. Dogmatics can indeed prepare for this decision, but it cannot try to make it of itself and on its own authority. It can be just as little its business to do this as to raise new credal statements to the rank of dogma (811).
In the end, dogmatics warns the Church against the emerging voice of heresy and its possible consequences, as it calls us back to a fresh hearing of the voice of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
Dogmatics summons the teaching Church to listen again to the voice of Jesus Christ. Its business, therefore, is to issue a warning whenever it sees a threat to the obedience which Church proclamation must render. Its warning must be loud and clear. In face of possible aberrations it must show the threatened consequences and indicate the necessary decisions. And it must not allow itself to shrink from this task. But it does not have to judge, as it does not have to define articles of the faith. The most that can be said is that it may have to repeat the judgment and confession of the Church itself. Indeed, it may be constrained to repeat them according to its own insight and independent judgment (812).