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Theology as a Churchly ‘Science’

October 10, 2011

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?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 4:41 pm

    Great post, Darren. Your final paragraph expresses questions that have been at the front of my mind for years now. Having now crossed the gap from spending the bulk of my time in academic contexts to now spending it in church ministry, I am very interested in the question of how the church does theology as a science in Barth’s sense, disciplined self-critique of its God-talk. Though between the UK and North America at least there seems to be the difference that in the former ministers do their training in universities and in the latter they do it in seminaries, my interactions see the similarity as greater: on both sides of the pond “theology” is basically a preliminary hoop to jump through that then gives you access to ministerial jobs in which theology as an ongoing habit and discipline of thinking in largely absent. The pastors I work with are quite intelligent theologically, but there is basically no structure in place by which they brought together to engage in theological reflection on and critique of their ministries. It is assumed, because most of them have seminary degrees, that they have their theological ducks in a row, but this assumption reflects an attitude toward doctrine and theological truth which sees as them as something like learning state capitals – its important to have learned them at some point, but its basically impractical knowledge that is understandably forgotten over time.

    Barth’s vision of the theological task has totally reoriented my thinking. I have a deep desire to see churches like mine (non-denom evangelical churches that don’t usually engage in perpetual, structured theological self-critique) establish disciplines and structures of theological self-assessment that get pastors reading deeply in the theological tradition. I don’t think it is workable to outsource that work to university/seminary profs. Their function ought to be to serve as specialists equipping pastors to do their scientific theological work more ably. But if churches don’t have theologians in them, if pastors don’t identify themselves as theologians who have a perpetual obligation to engage in the theological task, to remain engaged in academic theological conversations, then there will remain a deep rift between church and academy. Thankfully, I find at least my own church to be pretty open to suggestions about how to beef up its theological engagement, but that leaves me scratching my head about what to suggest…

  2. October 11, 2011 1:21 am

    If I recall correctly, Barth calls theology a “happy science” which always made my smile. You might be interested in what I am doing this week drawing from Thomas Torrance and Clerk Maxwell on epistemology in science and faith issues: http://perichoreticlife.blogspot.com/2011/10/are-you-my-mother.html

    My short answer to your questions is that it is a science exercised as a community (not just individuals and not limited to academia). Part of the study of theology belongs to real world praxis and not just rational thought. We study God in the most common elements of daily life, not just the extraordinary.

  3. October 11, 2011 9:46 am

    I’m fine with theology being called a science, in the sense of Wissenschaft – provided that any notion of the “unity” by which all sciences must be related is accessible only in faith. What confuses me about Barth, however, is that I don’t see how he can call *any* discipline “wissenschaftlich,” since to speak of a plurality of sciences seems to require that we grant an irreducible particularity to whatever it is that a particular discipline is studying. But if chemistry can be made “theological,” as Barth sort of claims (which I gather also means “properly scientific”), then it would seem like it would have to be subsumed under a “higher” science (theology), which suggests that its particularity is not concrete. For example, in Barth’s essay on philosophical and theological ethics from 1929, he concludes by suggesting that philosophical ethics is valid only insofar as it “says the same thing” as theological ethics using “different words.” But how is philosophy a discipline in its own right – i.e., how can it be justifiably “wissenschaftlich” – if its subject matter is accessible, perhaps even exhaustible, by another discipline (i.e., theology)? Ken Oakes, save us all.

    (by the way, what’s with the weird ads flashing at the bottom of our blog?)

  4. October 12, 2011 6:34 pm

    Adam: hear here!!!

    athanasius96: “as a community,” yes! but this due to the object under study not some external scientific demand.

    Justin: I see no ads on the blog, what is happening to you? Anyway, great question. The point that theology is a science in its own right is one that is well taken (with all the ramifications Adam is talking about and more), but the question of how it relates to the other sciences is glaring off the pages of CD I/1. I’d hate to think of each science in its own container (theology included). Perhaps it follows best to say that theology umbrellas the other disciplines and enables them to do their thing within their respective fields?

    Interesting that in CD IV Barth wants to say that good theology will be intelligible to those outside the church, even if understanding it is to be sought in faith and theology to be done in the church. Is that notion in CD I/1 as well? Here it doesn’t seem like it.

    Besides the above, I’m pondering Darren’s question about ‘what sense do you think that it is properly undertaken in formal, academic contexts?’ Not sure what to say to that other than that in those contexts it seems even more so up to the individual (and the faculty) whether they make it “churchly” or not. This has its own difficulties, but also has the advantage of not taking too much for granted. The breakdown can still happen, however, if the individuals are seeking a churchly context for their theological work but are simply not given it. This divide may be a question of accessibility (which places demands on the speaker and audience alike to try to communicate), but I suspect it also comes down to some other factors as well. Church people are doing a kind of theology every day, but they are doing it be the rules of rhetorical and economic sciences, opting for the good communicators and strategists at the increasing expense of everyday Christian theology.

  5. ken oakes permalink
    October 15, 2011 5:50 pm

    I think that the opening pages of CD I/1 regarding theology, the church, and science are pretty muddled (or ‘dialectical’ if you want!). (Does he really think the other sciences could in principle do what theology does?) I find CD I/1 more like a patchwork than a real prolegomenon, but Barth was never interested in giving us the typical prolegomena and he actively tries to steer us away pretty quickly from the typical questions that are asked and answered. To me Barth seems deliberately unattached to the notion of science as such. What he is really after, in good liberal fashion, is the Einzigartigkeit or Selbststaendigkeit of religion/theology, and his somewhat innovative and idiosyncratic definition of ‘science’ gets him that without simply letting theology float off from university as a whole (Barth was never as much of a dualistic regarding theology and other disciplines as Herrmann was). If I remember correctly, Barth basically says he doesn’t care whether theology is finally deemed a science or not, but for the sake of solidarity with other disciplines it should call itself a science (and maybe even prove itself to be the most scientific of all the sciences! – ohh Barth, you crazy!). And, of course, pushing the theology as an independent ‘science’ line means we’re still in the wake of Schleiermacher and Herrmann.

    This means that I think Barth isn’t interested in how other sciences might or might not live up to the ideals of Wissenschaft. He certainly doesn’t want them to be ‘psuedo-theological,’ or he has some stake in that, but he seems to me more interested in *using* the concept of science to individuate theology as a mundane human pursuit which has family resemblances to other human pursuits.

    I think Justin’s question about the ‘objects’ and ‘spheres’ of other sciences is a good one. At times Barth tries to give philosophy an object, but he usually isn’t too successful. At one point (the Ethics?) he says that the ‘object’ of ethics is the individual thinking about herself or himself in a completely formal way. This might describe some weird Kant fan-boy misunderstanding Kant while working in his mom’s basement, but as far as descriptions of ethics go it is pretty far off. My worry is that this then makes it easier for theological ethics to swoop in and save the day, but now I’m getting off topic!

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