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Dogmatics in Outline Paperback – September 2, 1959
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"An excellent summary of and introduction to Berthian theology."-- "The Times (London) Literary Supplement""This volume will bring [readers] into contact with a razor-edged mind grappling fearlessly with the profoundest questions of the human spirit."-- "The Christian World"
About the Author
Karl Barth (1886-1968) was Professor of Theology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. One of the greatest theologians and preachers of the twentieth century, he is best known for his monumental systematic theology, "Church Dogmatics". --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
Dogmatics in Outline is a short theological reflection on the Apostles' Creed. It is a phrase by phrase reading of that creed, interpreting it as the central statement of Christian belief for all time. The book was written during a troubling theological climate, when theology itself had, through its historically accrued methodology, lost its dogmatic focus. In particular, the central role of Christ was being questioned by many theologians. Barth confronts this movement with a timeless message of the absolute centrality of Christ, and he begins by eschewing traditional systematic theology, finding its terms and categorizations at times inimical to the message of Christ presented in the creed. Barth writes:
"We must always be putting the question, 'What is the evidence?' Not the evidence of my thoughts, or my heart, but the evidence of the apostles and prophets, as the evidence of God's self-evidence. Should a dogmatics lose light of this standard, it would be an irrelevant dogmatics." (13)
Theology, in other words, that is based on man's invention is worthless; and by this he means any theology that loses sight of the living source of faith, Jesus Christ. Thus, throughout the book, Barth continually points to Christ as the central, essential, sine qua non of Christian faith. He observes, for example, that "when we say, I believe in god, the concrete meaning is that I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ" (17). There is no true knowledge of God, states Barth, which is independent or separable from the knowledge of Christ.
I found three quarters of Barth's book to be among the most rewarding theological reading I have ever done. His Christocentric, Trinitarian, theologically aware reading of the creed is fabulous. In fact, I have underlined such a significant portion of the book, a few brief examples must suffice. One insightful comment is when Barth remarks on the 'oneness' of God:
"Do you understand what monotheism in Christian faith means? God knows, not the foolish delight in the number 'one'. It has nothing to do with the number 'one', but with this subject in His sheer uniqueness and otherness over against all others, different from all the ridiculous deities whom man invents." (40)
We must not take, Barth argues, from the language of 'theology' a meaning for God's monotheism which is opposed to its genuine purpose--to declare God's otherworldly superiority against all that man can do and invent. Another insightful comment from Barth's chapter on the Church:
"The truly ecumenical Christians are not those who trivialise the differences and flutter over them; they are those who in their respective Churches are quite concretely the Church." (143)
In other words, ecumenism is not achieved by glossing over the differences between churches, but by focusing our work on living and being the Church. The book, in this way, is anecdotally packed.
By praising three quarters of the book I have implied that one quarter was lacking, and this is true. Some of the later chapters lacked the freshness and energy of the first. And given the history of Protestant theology, it is not surprising that a Protestant theologian would be weak on topics like the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit. I might argue that Barth's theology rushes to the cross and then stays there just a little too long--it thus, in the plan of the creed, obscures his doctrine of the Spirit. To be fair, it is not that Barth has said bad or incorrect words in these closing chapters, but that perhaps he has not said enough. Perhaps they only look weak because the earlier chapters were so invigorated.
Dogmatics in Outline is not a perfect book--there are places where I disagreed with Barth or felt he didn't go far enough--but its merits far outweigh its faults. I found it to be one of the most enriching books I have read in some time, and I know even now that will read it many times more. Furthermore, I will gladly recommend it to others. So do as I did: pick up a copy and read a chapter a day. You won't regret it.
(Five Stars despite the lacking 1/4 of the book--what's good is too good to miss.)
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Publisher: Harper & Row Publishing
Reading Level: Moderate
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