Listening Teachers

The church’s task is, above all, to listen. The task of the church’s dogmatics is to stand under the word of God in giving stage direction to the church’s drama. And if it stands under the Word, it must continually listen to that word afresh, or else risk falling into the inevitable reality of straying from God’s word.

That’s my summary of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics §23.1.

Barth takes hold of the grace and promise of God, that God has not only spoken in the Word that is Jesus and the Word that is the Bible,

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but will continue to speak the Word in the church. Those three dynamics of God’s speech are believed, clung to, passionately asserted.

This means that true Dogmatics is possible.

And and the same time, Barth stands with open eyes among people who can only speak and act aright because they are recipients of the grace of God. We receive grace, even the grace of truth, and mix our conceit, our love of the dogma more than the God about whom it speaks, and what was pure, if for a minute, becomes impure in our hands and in fresh need of the grace of God.

This means that a true Dogmatics will never become a possession that the church can cling to.

Barth’s recounting of how the church does theology calls it to keep listening, to be ready to hear from its dogmatics that everything it is doing demands repentance. It demands that we continue to be the church whose foundational calling is to speak not what had to be said to the church of times past, but to the church and place and time in which we find ourselves summoned to speak.

Because God has promised to speak, our “only resource is to seize the weapon of continually listening.”


I continue to harbor my concern that dogmatics as speaking correctly about God takes too central a role in Barth’s understanding of the church’s calling. In the face of various heresies that the church has faced, stood against in the hope of God’s promise to speak in the church, Barth claims, “the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church” (807).

As much I like what Barth is calling us to in our theological articulations, I continue to worry that “Word” has taken too central a place, and that “deed” takes too secondary a role in establishing the church’s faithfulness, identity, and peace.

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