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A faithful framework...
on 14 January 2004
One of the remarkable things about this text is that it is derived from lectures Barth delivered without notes. Reading the text shows the remarkable clarity and insight of a man who had spent a lifetime developing a massive theological system (although Barth himself would hesitate to call his work systematic theology, constrasting his work with Tillich, who explicitly claimed the description for his work). Barth's 'Church Dogmatics' represents a major achievement in the history of theology, twentieth century or otherwise; this text, 'Dogmatics in Outline', can serve as a good introduction, a brief overview, or a quick reminder of the greater work in 'Church Dogmatics'.
Barth warns against using this text in a Cliff-Notes fashion for the larger work; however, modern reality being what it is, many students and readers will never find the time to explore the larger work, so this is a welcome text. It goes beyond 'Church Dogmatics' in some ways, in that this text (perhaps more than any other of Barth's, or perhaps on a par with his 'Humanity of God') serves as a guide to Barthian thought without the difficulty involved in his weightier works.
'Dogmatics in Outline' has as its backdrop the war-weary European theatre; indeed, these lectures were delivered in the bomb-damaged University of Bonn. If ever there were experiences that would question the love of God and the grace of God toward humanity, the experiences of the few years preceding these lectures would have served as such. Barth takes the experiences of World War II and the Holocaust into full account as he discusses the importance of faith. One of Barth's concerns throughout his career, and certainly in the aftermath of world war, is that moderns have lost the ability to speak in theological and faithful terms. Humanity has a tendency toward idolatry (an idea Barth shares with Tillich), even those who consider themselves orthodox.
Many Christians will readily recognise the overall outline of this Outline -- Barth uses the basic framework of the Apostle's Creed. Indeed, Barth hesitated to publish these lectures, given that he had two other works dealing with the Creed already published; however, it is this collection that stands best in memory. Perhaps it is Barth's method -- rather than reading a lecture, he gave a talk -- that makes this such a powerful work.
Barth begins by describing dogmatics as being a critical science concerned with the Christian church. Science here is not used in the terms of content but rather of intellectual method; like Tillich, Barth wanted the modern world to recapture the sense of necessity and validity of the theological enterprise, and using terminology and methodology made sense in this context. However, almost as soon as Barth described his task in terms of critical science, he gave an extended discourse on faith, in terms of trust, knowledge, and confession. Faith is a decision, Barth claims, that must be credible and comprehensible as well as accountable.
Never leaving aside Barth's key idea of the infinite difference between God and humanity, Barth traces through the statements of the Creed the love and grace of God toward humankind, and our response to that grace. Drawing heavily upon the New Testament texts and the overall history of salvation through the history of ancient Israel, Barth's sensitivity draws God and humanity into close relationship particularly through the person of Jesus Christ, in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, continued in community through the church. The revelation of God, according to Barth, comes solely at God's discretion -- there is nothing we can do to force it, or merit it, but it is given to us all freely in any case, from God's infinite love.
Stanley Hauerwas recommends a yearly re-reading of Barth's 'Dogmatics in Outline' for those of us (which is all of us) 'tempted to forget our strangeness'. The book is not lengthy, and can be read fairly quickly in a few sittings. It is a great text.