Speaking & the Church’s Calling

What is the mission of the church? The church must preach the word of God. It must enact its message in the administration of the sacraments.

It must speak correctly the things of God for its time and place.

Barth--He Can Talk

From this, Karl Barth concludes that the church “cannot, then, escape the conclusion that it must regard and treat the work of dogmatics as its most essential task” (§22.2).

Throughout his discussion of doctrine, dogmatics, and preaching, Barth advances two crucial components to the church’s faithful practice of articulating its doctrine.

First, the calling to speak correctly about God both demands that we labor with all our resources to speak correctly and, in the end, that the grace of God superintend the speech so that it communicates faithfully and truly. There is no pure doctrine without the grace of God, but this is not an excuse for idleness.

Second, the task of speaking correctly will engage the traditions and creeds of the church, but cannot be assured simply by repeating the same words. The church’s task is always to say what needs to be said for its own time and place if it is to speak a truly faithful dogmatics.

But I now wish to circle back around to the claim that dogmatics is the church’s most essential task. And here I have to protest.

For all that Barth’s means and frameworks for doing Dogmatics is important–and an improvement on what often happens in the church–the church misses the heart of its calling if it thinks that its most important task is to speak correctly about God. Full stop.

The speaking correctly about the revelation of God in Christ is important for the purpose of directing the life of the church as a continuing embodiment of that revelation.

Perhaps Barth here falls victim to his own Logo-centrism, where Jesus is revelation of the Father as Word of God, which Word is revealed also in scripture and preaching. But Jesus not only speaks and embodies divine words, Jesus also acts.

The living Word of God feeds hungry people–and thereby reveals God.

The living Word of God embraces the outcasts and the dregs–and thereby reveals God.

The living Word of God heals the sick–and thereby reveals God.

The most important task of the church is to re-present the living Word of God in the deeds of that very Word’s body on earth, the church. If we attend so strictly to the dogmatic task that we fail to act, or so prize it that we fail to equally, let alone more abundantly, prize the self-giving love to which we are called, then we have failed in our Kingdom calling to love our neighbor as ourselves.

10 thoughts on “Speaking & the Church’s Calling”

    1. Not sure what you mean, Robert. Barth and Bonhoeffer are pretty close. Bonhoeffer draws on Barth for virtually all of his theological underpinnings–e.g. chapter 1 in Life Together where Bonhoeffer is critical / suspicious of the overemphasis on community–that’s Barth in Epistle to the Romans, etc.. Later Barth draws on Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio when he begins filling his ecclesiology in volume IV. See more at: http://derevth.blogspot.com/2010/09/2010-kbbc-week-1-day-3.html where Matt Puffin and I reflect a bit on this stuff. I always think Bonhoeffer is the gateway drug to Barth. If you liked Bonhoeffer, you’ll like Barth. Warmly, Andy

  1. Would it be better taken if we understood that dogmatics exists for the sake of preaching? Because there its most important task is to speak correctly about God. Or for the sake of right action living out those words (and that Word)? Because there its most important task is still to have spoken correctly, and to act rightly.

    I hear you taking issue with dogmatics as the most essential task, and the phrase makes me a bit itchy as well. But on the whole, I don’t find that articulation of doctrine is equated with speaking correctly about God. Or, rather, that speaking correctly about God is equated with articulating doctrines. Dogmatics is a corrective, the means of proceeding from the speech and actions of the church, to the speech and actions of the church, through the workshop.

    So I think you’re on target, and I hear where you’re coming from — but keep reading, because you’re right on the cusp of the point. 22.3 on dogmatics as ethics leads into the discussions in 23 and 24 on the hearing and teaching church. It’s a good critique to take into these sections, and I’m interested to see how well Barth answers you.

  2. I’ve never read Barth, so all I have to go on is what you’ve written, and you indicated that the next chapter may indeed bring up the points you mentioned, so I’ll leave all that alone. What I will say is that, having grown up in a very Everyman Evangelical American church, I can validate that, as much as any generalization can be true, the American churches I think believe this and live this out, even if Karl Barth offers further definition of it or not. So much so that for me, the walk into realizing that the Living Word required action as well left me alone in a far-off left field, branded some kind of liberal wacko for attempting to integrate the actions of Jesus into our Christian communities.

    I think the more people like you write and teach more of what is in this post, the better off we’ll all be. Thank you.

  3. I think you’re right Daniel to catch an overstatement by Barth. But he will qualify it later. In volume IV.3.2 paragraph 72 Barth definitively makes clear that the “Task of the community [church]” is witness (p. 795f) which I think is much more adequate. I think in the earlier volumes his use of the word “preaching / proclaiming” makes more sense if replaced by the broader “witness.” In Darrell Guder’s lectures at Fuller, http://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/missional-leadership-after/id380159874 he mentions that Luther’s Bible translated 30 Greek words for different ministries of the word in the New Testament as “preaching” so Barth inherits that prejudice and does not entirely overcome it. “Gerhard Friedrich pointed out that Martin Luther used one German verb – predigen, meaning preach – for the translation of more than thirty Greek verbs having to do with verbal communication.” http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/guder-on-missional-church-models/

    To the end I would say that you are correct that he continues to see the nuance and beauty of Dogmatics–I’m thinking of Evangelical Theology now–while underappreciating the other functions in the church. But again that overemphasis is slight considering the 12 forms of ministry he treats in IV.3.2 pp. 865-901: 6 ministries of speech:(1) Praise, (2) Preaching, (3) Instruction, (4) Evangelisation, (5) Foreign Missions, (6) Theology; 6 ministries of action: (7) Prayer, (8) Cure of souls, (9) Examples, (10) Diaconate, (11) Prophetic action, (12) Fellowship.

    Daniel, you are doing amazingly well continuing through the CD–way to go!

    Also quick recommendation: Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth by Geoffrey William Bromiley is a fantastic section-by-section companion through the CD.

    1. Thanks for all this, Andy. Thanks especially for the Bromiley recommendation. I often get asked what sort of intro folks might look at, and I have no idea because my entire bandwidth is taken up by reading CD!

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