With the Reading Barth Together webinar series with Stanley Hauerwas and me set to begin next Tuesday (hope you’ll join us), my friend Ralph Wood, one of our finest scholars of theology and literature, shared with me a set of questions related to Dogmatics in Outline. Now I share them with you to help stimulate and guide your reading of Barth. Ralph has labored heroically to bring Karl Barth’s work to undergraduate students over the years.
Study Questions on Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline
Formulated by Ralph Wood
Baylor University, Waco, Texas 76798
- Since “dogmatics” means simply “the testing of Church doctrine and proclamation” (12), why does Barth say that it should be classified as a science rather than one of the humanities? What is the “definite object” of this science (3)? What is the proper audience for such theological effort to get clear about what Christians believe and proclaim? Why do dogmatics deal with what Christians really have to say to the world (11)? What are the two theological criteria for measuring the church’s proclamation, and yet why do they not stand on the same level—the one binding and the other non-binding (13)?
- Since credo means “I believe,” why does Barth first of all describe faith as trust, calling it “the subjective form of faith” (15) that comes from the heart? Yet why does he call this trust a meeting, a gift, not something that we seize but that we receive, and therefore not something dependent on our native human capacity (17)? What is truly radical about the simple claim that “God is to be known only through God Himself” (18)? What is meant by unbelief, the opposite of trusting in God? Why does Barth describe trusting faith as “a freedom, a permission, something beyond our strength” (19)? Why does Barth insist that faith is an awakening “in spite of everything,” rather than a heroic decision that we must nobly make for ourselves (20)? Why must true faith not be temporary but always indelible and thus a once-and-forever kind of trust? Why should we not take our unbelief too seriously? (21)
- Why does Barth call faith, in the second case, a form of knowledge that occurs in the head, and therefore not something irrational or incredible? Vernunft (German for “reason”) is linked to vernehmen (understanding), just as pistis (Greek for “faith”) is linked to gnosis (knowledge). Yet why does Barth insist that the existence of this God whom we in faith are called to know is literally unthinkable, undebatable, not truly open to discussion, and unprovable (23)? Why therefore does God have to provide knowledge of himself, and where is this knowledge found (24-25)? Since scientia means logical knowledge, why does faith produce sophia or sapientia—the knowledge which means wisdom and the way actually to live (25)? Why is the most shocking claim of this chapter found here: “The truth of Jesus Christ is not one truth among others; it is the truth, the universal truth that creates all truth as surely as it is the truth of God, the prima veritas (first truth) which is also the ultima veritas (last truth)” (26)?
- Why does Barth wait until last to speak of faith as confession, decision, an act of the will? Why does he speak of this decision not as “making our personal profession of faith” but as an act of obedience in identifying ourselves with the community called the church? Why is this act our true confession to the world (29)? Why would any other decision be a hiding of God’s gift of faith to us, an attempt to live in a snail’s shell (30, 34)? What does it mean for the church to confess faith in God in its own language, and can you think of examples where the contemporary church professes faith in another and false language (31)? Yet why must the church also translate its faith into the language of the world, avoiding all notions of “Christianity as friendly ‘magic’ belonging to the ‘realm of religion’” (32)? Why is this translation, this determination to “grapple with the problems of the day,” likely to be costly, requiring us to “pay in person” (34)?
- When we speak of God as the fulfillment of our longing, the satisfaction of our homesickness, the hope for the world’s unity, the meaning of our existence, why are we not speaking as Christians (35)? Why does Barth elsewhere describe all religion as the disclosure of human unbelief? When Barth declares that “God is not to be found in the series of gods” (Deus non est in genere), what does he mean? Why is it wrong, therefore, to speak of God even as the Supreme Being, but right to declare that God is “the Reality which [man] has never of himself sought out or first of all discovered” (36)? Why does the Bible have no interest in proving God but only in describing the God who proves himself (38)? Why are proofs of God an insult to God? Why is it erroneous to speak of God as lonely, “even without the world” (40; cf. 44)? Why does Scripture speak of God’s three triune acts of self-disclosure: in Creation, in Covenant, and Redemption (39)? Why is Barth suspicious of all so-called “Christian art” (41)?
- Why should we not derive our idea of the divine fatherhood by looking first to our own parents and likening God to them, but rather should we measure them in the light of God the Father (43)? Why is it appropriate to say “God is love” but inappropriate to say “Love is God” (cf. 39)? Why should we describe the created cosmos as “the overflow of God’s fulness” in which “He gives us a share in Himself” (44)? Why should we describe ourselves as God’s creatures rather than God’s children, and thus as people whom he has made (factus) rather than begotten (genitus) (44-45)? Why should we call ourselves the adopted children of God? If God’s own triune life is a chain of charity (vinculum caritatis), what does it mean that “God of Himself lets us participate in His nature, in His life and essence” (45)?
- It is important to remember that this lecture was delivered in response to Adolf Hitler’s constant references to God as der Allmächtiger (the All-Powerful). Why does Barth describe God as the One who is free not to do anything whatsoever but only “what he wills to do” (47)? Why does Barth distinguish between two opposite kinds of power: potentia (the raw, brutal power to work chaos and destruction) versus potestas (the legitimate ordering power based on law and love)?
- Why does the world remain such a “dark mirror” (52) that God must be revealed to us as the Creator, when it seems so obvious that there is a world and thus that there must be a Maker of it? In interpreting Genesis 1 and 2, why does Barth avoid the categories of both myth (once-upon-a-time stories of timeless and universal truths) and science (factual accounts of the world as it actually exists)? Why does he prefer the term saga (narratives recounting actual events in the life of a particular people, but retold so as to emphasize their meaning rather than their historicity) (51)? Why is it proper to understand God as the Creator only in light of His having become a creature in Jesus Christ (53)? Why should we be more astonished at our own and the world’s existence than God’s (53-54)? Why would the universe vanish if God withdrew His support from it even a nanosecond (55)? Why does the world exist by the Word (57), and thus serve as the theatre of God’s glory (58)? Why is sin not to be understood as having come into the world by our own free choice, as if we stood like Hercules at the cross-roads choosing between good and evil, but rather as the result of the disobedience which surrenders all freedom (the bottom of 56 must be read and re-read!!!).
- Why is Barth so insistent that Christianity is a not a Weltanschauung, not a world-view tied to a particular kind of science, not even Einsteinian science (59, 61)? Why is heaven to be regarded not as an eternal but as a created (though inconceivable) realm that shall eventually pass away (61)? Why does the this invisible heaven make the creation fundamentally mysterious, alternately terrifying and delighting us, yet making us neither fear nor worship it (62)? Why is man the sole creature who exists on the boundary between heaven and earth, the singular creature who stretches beyond himself and who therefore exists for the praise and glory of God (63)?
- Why is Christology “the touchstone of all theology”? Why is it also the one doctrine that tells us who we are? Why is it a great error to say God and man rather than God become Man (66)? Why can even a four-year old understand the glorious glad tidings that God has become human (67)? Yet why is it foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (read 1 Cor 1:23)? What does Barth mean by the most shocking statement in this chapter: “Even the fact that [man] is a sinner cannot be known from man himself”(67)? Why is the Incarnation “the infinitely surprising thing that never existed before and cannot be repeated” (68)? Why is the Incarnation not a mythic and timeless truth (one truth among others) but the unique Truth, the historical reality that “God willed from eternity” (69)? Why does this supreme Good News shatter all gloom and make for all joy? Lines 6-20 on page 71 are the most wondrous in the entire book!
- This chapter shows how the Christological claims made in the last chapter address the Jewish question, especially in view of the Holocaust that the Nazis had just perpetrated. Why does Barth say that Israel is nothing apart from Jesus Christ, just as Jesus Christ would be nothing apart from Israel (74); indeed, that our Savior “was of necessity a Jew” (76)? Why are the Church and the Synagogue inseparably engaged with each other? Why are the Jews “the single proof of God’s existence” (75)? Why must anyone who regards the Jews as the enemy also regard Jesus Christ as the enemy? Why must any nation (including the U.S.) which “chooses itself and makes itself the basis and measure of everything” finally seek to exterminate the Jews? Why is anti-Semitism a worse form of godlessness than all kinds of atheism (77)? Why are the Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah not then rejected by God, and why is their mission not superceded by Christianity (79)? Read John 4: 22 and Romans 9-11 to see why Barth insists that “salvation is [not was] of the Jews” (81).
- This chapter deals with Christ as Savior. Why does Barth not compare Him with others saviors and prophets—Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Zoroaster—but rather confess what the church believes (87)? Why do all other religious revelations and miraculous or terrifying phenomena (even the atomic bomb) lack the “final, binding authority” that Christ alone possesses (83)? Why is “man not broken by these lords who are not the Lord” (84)? Why is “the Bible not a letter-box but the grand-document of the revelation of God” which requires us to answer its message (85)? Why is the Christian faith radically distinguished from all “religion,” including Christian “religion” which Barth elsewhere defines as unbelief (86)?
- Here Barth asks why Christians declare Jesus to be the Lord. Why does Barth not call us to make a decision about this Lord but say, instead, that “a sovereign decision has been made about us” (88)? Why does he declare that “In this one man God sees every man” and that “Everything is decided about us in Him, in this one man” (90-91)? Why does our obedience to Jesus’ summons not spring from ourselves but from the objective fact that “man is Christ’s property, not in spite of but in [man’s] freedom” (91)? Why is it a matter of deep mystery rather than easy assurance “that all men have their Lord in Him” (92)? Why are Christians not angrily obsessed with the world’s unbelief but instead glad and thankful for the privilege and honor of becoming a “unique, living advertisement” of their Lord (93)?
- Why is the miracle of Christmas an analogue of the original creation, as God offers the world a new beginning in history, in the history of Israel (97)? Why is the Virgin Birth not a gynecological claim about Mary having her first sexual intercourse with the Holy Spirit, but rather the doctrine that Jesus Christ was conceived “by way of the ear of Mary”(99)!? Why did God choose this lowly woman, rather than a swaggering he-man, to bear his Son (99)?
- Why does Barth say that Jesus’ whole existence was lived “under the sign of suffering” (102)? Yet why was his suffering unlike all other, so that only through faith in Him do we “see what suffering is” (104)? Why do we learn in Christ’s Cross alone what wickedness and evil and sin truly are—because there man’s “No directly touches God Himself” (105)? Yet why is it the deepest mystery of God that God himself becomes guilty there (107)?
- How does the claim that Christ was crucified “under Pontius Pilate” remind us that we are not dealing with the mythic death of a Greek or Roman god, but a shameful historical execution that exposes “what politicians have more or less always done,” as Revelation 13 teaches (111)? What should Pilate have done instead, and why does his role as a proper statesman reveal why we must renounce all non-political Christianity, as Romans 13 teaches (112)? How do Pilate and Judas serve as parallels?
- Why does Christ’s death not concern the most horrible physical suffering ever witnessed, but rather the utter humiliation (exinanitio) of God himself? Why is the Cross not the image of a noble sacrifice which we should re-enact but rather “God’s putting Himself in man’s place and man’s being put in God’s place” (115)? How can God assume our condition as guilty sinners and “actually forgive Himself” (116)? What does Christ’s death reveal about our own death—that it is no mere pause but the end, that our lives are a “hurrying to the grave,” that we deserve to get what we want, namely, the Hell which is total and final “exclusion from God” (117-18)? Why did Christ descend into Hell to prevent our well-deserved fate?
- Why is this chapter on the Resurrection the shortest in the book? Why does Barth not liken Christ’s victory over death to the tulips and daisies that bloom in the spring, as nature is annually reborn from death? Why is the Resurrection an event in space and time that cannot be proved? Why does Easter concern the glorification (exaltatio) of man, through “the breaking in of a new time and world” (122)? Why is Easter the proclamation, not of a coming victory, but of a victory already won? Why does Easter make Christians comic rather than tragic people, a people who prefer laughter over tears?
- Why does Barth emphasize the present-tense verb “sitteth” as he discusses the meaning of the Ascension? How does this event make Christ qualitatively different from Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter and the other people in the New Testament who were also raised from the dead? What does it mean that Christ not only reigns at the right hand of the Father but also that “we [are] with Him beside God” (125)? Why is this fact “the one constant” that remains and continues, giving Christians an undefeatable hope? Why is the new time created by the Ascension to be understood as the unique time of the Church, the time in which God exhibits both His patience with stubborn and unbelieving humanity, and his eagerness for Christians to be his glad witnesses in the world (128)?
- How does the doctrine of the Last Judgment demonstrate God’s unwillingness to wait forever, but rather that he will bring time to a final end? Why is the Christ who is coming not different than the Christ who has come (131)? Why are Christians not melancholy owls but a joyful folk precisely because they believe that “the world derives unknowingly, while the Church derives knowingly from Jesus Christ” (132)? Why does the doctrine of the Christ’s Return in judgment bring comfort and the “tidings of joy” rather than fear and horror (134)? Why is it better not to think of the Final Coming as a division of humanity into the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned, but rather to imagine how everything ungodly in everybody will be cast into everlasting darkness (read the bottom of 135 and the top of 136 very carefully!)?
- Why does Barth say that the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift that enables our freedom and conversion and belief, not draw a line of obvious separation between men but one that remains “hidden from us” (138)?
- Why is it impossible to be an unchurchly Christian, and thus why is it necessary to believe that “the congregation to which I belong … is the one, holy, universal Church” (144)?
- Why does the forgiveness of sins come under the doctrine of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, and not refer merely to our individual willingness to forgive others (149)? Why, when he was assaulted by demonic temptation, did Martin Luther scrawl the words “I have been baptized” (Baptizatus sum) on a chalk board (150)? Why shall we be judged less according to all of the good works we have performed than by the question of whether we have lived by grace, having “nothing to boast of” (152)?
- Why is our expectation of bodily resurrection and eternal life not a negation of “the beauty of this life,” its joys and delights? Why does resurrection not mean “the continuation of this life but its completion”? Why when rightly understood is eschatology, the doctrine of Last Things, “the most practical thing that can be thought” (154)? Why is the Lord’s Supper our constant reminder of this final hope in the face of death—the hope that our death has already been put to death (155)?