Theology as a Churchly ‘Science’
Here at the University of Aberdeen we’ve just begun the fall term, including a weekly systematic theology seminar. Our text for that group is volume I/1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Part 1). I may post some thoughts from this volume from time to time, including this week’s preliminary reflection on §1: the notion that theology is 1) a “scientific” discipline; and 2) a task of the church.
To call theology “scientific” is to suggest that it stands with equal validity alongside the other undertakings of the university as a human task in the pursuit of knowledge. Theological expression is the product of logic and reason, with conclusions following from principles. It is rational, and not irrational. And like all other sciences, theology properly takes not only its conclusions but also its methodology from its object of study. The methods of chemistry or physics may be analogical to that of theology, but they are not the same. How we do theology is determined not by other scientific endeavors, but by the Word of God.
[If] the concern of the Church is not to go by default, the special function of a scientific theology, corresponding to the special function of the service of God, is in fact indispensible. Its task, not in fact discharged by other sciences, is that of the criticism and correction of talk about God according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle. Theology is the science which finally sets itself this task, and this task alone, subordinating to this task all other possible tasks in the human search for truth. (p. 6)
If theology allows itself to be called, or calls itself, a science, it cannot in so doing accept the obligation of submission to standards valid for other sciences. … It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos. (p. 10)
Barth’s second point in §1 is that, as disciplined reflection upon the Word of God, theology belongs to the church. The implication seems to be that those who stand outside cannot hope to properly undertake theological reflection with any measurable success, rational as it may be. But Barth’s focus is on the positive: the church can and indeed must engage in theology (or “dogmatics”). This task is the church’s self-examination, the testing of its message, and is no less important than its vocation of taking to the world the gospel of redemption and of peace with God.
The fact that it is in faith that the truth is presupposed to be the known measure of all things means that the truth is in no sense assumed to be to hand. The truth comes, i.e., in the faith in which we begin to know, and cease, and begin again. The results of earlier dogmatic work, and indeed our own results, are basically no more than signs of its coming. They are simply the results of human effort. As such they are a help to, but also the object of, fresh human effort. Dogmatics is possible only as theologia crucis, in the act of obedience which is certain in faith, but which for this very reason is humble, always being thrown back to the beginning and having to make a fresh start. (p. 14)
Dogmatics is a function of the Christian Church. The Church tests itself by essaying it. To the Church is given the promise of the criterion of Christian faith, namely, the revelation of God. The Church can pursue dogmatics. Even in the Church dogmatics need not be the work of a special dogmatic science. But there is no possibility of dogmatics at all outside the Church. To be in the Church, however, is to be called with others by Jesus Christ. To act in the Church is to act in obedience to this call. This obedience to the call of Christ is faith. (p. 17)
What do you think of the notion that systematic theology is a “science?” If this is so, and if it is properly undertaken by the church, in what sense do you think that it is properly undertaken in formal, academic contexts? Does “the church” here extend to individual believers who are about the task of theological reflection in the university? Does “the church” extend to seminaries, confessional liberal arts colleges, and para-church organizations? How broad and how varied is the context of the church?