In March 2000, First Things asked a variety of folks to name which theological books of the twentieth century “made a lasting mark,” so Stanley named Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline, recommending that it be read yearly. If you’re planning to attend our Reading Barth Together series of webinars in May, this little encomium may pair well with Ralph’s series of discussion question to help you read Barth’s wonderful little book.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (1947)
By Stanley Hauerwas
In 1946, standing amid the ruins of Bonn University, Karl Barth gave the lectures that we now know as Dogmatics in Outline. He lectured without a script, because as he tells us, the “primitive conditions which I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to ‘talk’ instead of to ‘read.’” In fact Barth says it was impossible for him to be only an academic teacher (which he confesses came easy since he had never been that). But rather he had to be a kind of missionary, Sunday School teacher, and popular orator. Yet the result was and is a beautiful book that witnesses to the God who alone gives us hope that we can live in a world in which war is not assumed to be a given.
First Things, I assume, is committed to the proposition that God matters for all that is matter. That God, moreover, is not just any god, but the God who has made Himself known to us in Israel and Jesus Christ. It is not easy to speak well of such a God in a world that might assume God is but another piece in the metaphysical furniture of the universe. Even the most “orthodox” in such a world often discover that in spite of themselves, their speech about God turns out to be speech that serves to underwrite idolatry. Dogmatics in Outline is Barth’s short, but intense, course in how to speak of God in a world that has lost the habits of faithful Christian speech.
When he delivered the lectures in Bonn, Barth was sixty years old and he was working on the third volume of the Church Dogmatics. Barth lectured extemporaneously, but the words he spoke were ones that could come only from a life of struggle with the Bible. Indeed, one of the attractions of Dogmatics in Outline—in form, a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed—is that it really is an outline of Barth’s much larger Church Dogmatics. In the “Foreword” to the paperback edition of these lectures, Barth expresses some concern that some may try to substitute the reading of Dogmatics in Outline for the Dogmatics. Anyone who would do so he condemns by quoting Paul—”If any one will not work, let him not eat.”
Barth understood that recovering Christian speech is work and it is a work that the world literally cannot live without. The heart of Barth’s theol ogy is the presumption that if we get God wrong, we get everything wrong—our politics, our science, our art, our very lives. Moreover, he thought the wars that had wracked this century were the result of our making ourselves rather than God the beginning and end of existence. Dogmatics in Outline, indeed the whole of the Dogmatics, was Barth’s attempt to help us regain the language adequate to our situation as creatures created to praise our Creator and thus capable of living at peace with one another.
Barth coyly observes, “A Christian Father once rightly said that Deus non est in genere, ‘God is not a particular instance within a class.’” That “Father” was, of course, Thomas Aquinas; and Barth, in spite of his attack on natural theology, knew he shared far more with Aquinas than he did with many Protestant theologians. Barth, like Aquinas, knew that God is God and we are not, and (also like Aquinas) took on the hard task of helping recover the grammar of the God Who is Trinity. Barth thought this work important because it cannot help but force men to speak and live precisely. For to say that “Jesus is Lord” overturns the presumption that we, not God, rule the world.
Consider, for example, Barth’s claim: “Men are timeless when we are without God and without Christ. Then we have no time. But this timelessness he has overcome. Christ has time, the fullness of time. He sitteth at the right hand of God as he who has come, who has acted and suffered and triumphed in death. His session at God’s right hand is not just the extract of this history; it is the eternal within this history.” Accordingly Christians need not leap Lessing’s ditch separating the necessary truths justified by reason from the claims of faith justified only by history and tradition. Our God’s history “is indeed an accidental truth of history.” Our task is not to try to fit God into our histories, but rather to understand the good news that God has made us part of His history.
God’s history, moreover, cannot be told or lived without the living presence of the Jews: “If as Christians we thought that church and synagogue no longer affected one another, everything would be lost.” Barth’s comment about the Jews is not an attempt to “make up” for the destruction of the Jews but rather a reminder to Christians that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews must be read as a judgment on our unfaithfulness to our Lord. Our recognition that our God is the Lord of history requires that we recognize that Jesus was “of necessity a Jew. . . . The problem of Israel is—since the problem of Christ is inseparable from it—the problem of existence as such. The man who is ashamed of Israel is ashamed of Jesus Christ and therefore of his own existence.”
In the midst of his lectures at Bonn, Barth was asked if he was aware that many of the people at the lectures were not Christians. With his usual good humor and the sheer joy he found in theology freely done, Barth responded, “It makes no difference to me.” Theology becomes a burden only when we take our unbelief seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously—a faith, moreover, that recognizes that “we are not nearer to believing in God the Creator than we are to believing that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. It is not the case that the truth about God the Creator is directly accessible to us and that only the truth of the second article needs a revelation.” In both cases we are faced by the mystery of God and the recognition that our existence is the work of grace.
That God and man have become one in Jesus Christ, however, has made through Christ’s ascension not only the possibility but the necessity of the visible witnesses in the world called Church. Barth knew such witnesses could not help but appear in the world as “strangely human persons.” How could we not but appear strange, believing as we do that we are timeless, if God has not in fact redeemed us in Christ? Just to the extent that those committed to the witness of First Things might be tempted to forget our strangeness, I can think of no better reminder than a yearly reading of Dogmatics in Outline.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics at Duke University.