§2.1 The Necessity of Dogmatic Prolegomena
Summary: Prolegomena is the introductory part of theology that seeks to understand its particular way of knowledge. Prolegomena, thus, is our attempt to speak about how we go about knowing in theology. Why do we need prolegomena? Well, first of all it isn’t something simply forced on us by modernity. Barth rejects the notion that somehow our present age is unique and different than all others that preceded it: “Knowledge of the revelation believed in the Church does not stand or fall with the general religious possibility that is made easier by the ancient view of things and more difficult by the modern” (p. 28). Moreover, this view (i.e. that the modern situation requires theology to offer a sort of justificatory prolegomena that explains how revelation is possible) is to be reject also on the grounds that revelation, as the church confesses it, has occured and it creates its own “point of contact in [hu]man[ity]” (p. 29). We cannot set about looking into the possibility of knowing divine revelation, we can only speak about its actuality. However, speaking in this way of course leaves open the possibility of heresy, that is a genuinely Christian deviations (or seeming deviation) from truth of revelation. This is a possibility that we can never foreclose, and which is in fact essential for the life of the church.
Money Quote: “In this conversation [between faith and heresy] the Church must wrestle with heresy in such way that it may itself be the Church. And heresy must attack the Church because it is not sufficiently or truly the Church. . . . In true encounter with heresy faith is plunged into conflict with itself, because, so long and so far as it is not free of heresy, so long and so far as it must accept responsibility in relation to it, it cannot allow even the the voice of unbelief which it thinks it hears in heresy to cause it to treat as not at least also faith but simply as unbelief. It must understand it as a possibility of faith.” (p. 33)
§2.2 The Possibility of Dogmatic Prolegomena
Summary: Understanding prolegomena as the articulation of the way of knowledge that happens in theology means that there must be come place to start from which this exposition is intelligible and meaningful. Where is this place? Barth asks. Well, according to “modernist dogmatics” (i.e. Protestant liberalism), “the Church and faith are to be understood as links in a greater nexus of being” (p. 36). Thus, theology is understood on the basis of other human sciences (anthropology, metaphysics, etc.). Of course this proposition, as Barth notes, already has “a highly theological character” (p. 37) and involves the rejection of the church’s confession of revelation in Jesus Christ, as such Barth rejects it. On the other hand, Roman Catholicism has a different answer to this problem. The place from which theology can begin, on that view, is from the self-positing givenness of the Roman Church’s body of teaching through “Holy Scripture, Church tradition, and the living teaching apostlate of the Church infallibly representing and interpreting both” (p. 39). Barth rejects this option as well as in it “the action of God immediately disappears and is taken up into the action of the recipient of grace, that which is beyond all human possibilities changes at once into that which is enclosed within the reality of the Church, and the personal act of divine address becomes a constantly available relationship” (p. 40). Where does that leave us? Well, for “Evangelical dogmatics” it means that we don’t have a “place” in the world to start out from which it “can be known and said in advance, before actually embarking on dogmatics” what theology is and how it is possible. There is no general human or ecclesiastical possibility for specifying the correctness and possibility of theological knowledge. Rather this can only be an event, and event of God’s own speaking in Christ. Thus, “Only when and to the extent that such a Word of God is spoken by God Himself to the Church is there any right sense in speaking about God in the Church. Only when there is such a Word of God is there a criterion, namely, the Word itself, of the correctness of such speech and therefore of the correct criticism and correction of such speech, i.e., of dogmatics” (p. 42).
Money Quote: “The only possibility of dogmatics knowledge remaining to us on the basis of Evangelical faith is to be marked off on the one hand by the rejection of an existential ontological possibility of the being of the Church and on the other hand by the rejection of the presupposition of a constantly available absorption of the being of the Church into a creaturely form, into a ‘There is.’ On the one side we have to say that the being of the Church is actus purus, i.e., a divine action which is self-originating and which is to be understood only in terms of itself and not therefore in terms of a prior anthropology. And on the other side we have also to say that the being of the Church is actus purus, but with the accent now on actus, i.e., a free action and not a constantly available connexion, grace being the event of personal address and not a transmitted material condition. On both sides we can only ask how it may be otherwise if the being of the Church is identical with Jesus Christ. If this is true, then the place from which the way of dogmatic knowledge is to be seen and understood can be neither a prior anthropological possibility nor a subsequent ecclesiastical reality, but only the present moment of the speaking and hearing of Jesus Christ Himself, the divine creation of light in our hearts.” (p. 41)