Missiology as Dogmatics: Karl Barth’s “Third Problem of the Doctrine of Reconciliation”

One of the reasons for taking a bit of a hiatus here on Reformissio is that last fall I began a PhD program at South African Theological Seminary. Since that time, my mind has been swirling with ideas regarding possible areas of research, resulting at times in a sense of mental vertigo. As I am currently in the phase of research concept development, I thought that perhaps doing some “thinking out loud” by sketching out some thoughts here on the blog might help in discovering and clarifying the specific area of research to which I will be devoting the next few years of my life.

As a full-time career missionary, my most immediate and pressing interest is of course missions and missiology. Yet one of the frustrating aspects of this topic is that it is often relegated to the “praxis” side of the academic equation, a move that betrays an underlying dualism between theory and practice. As noted by John Flett in his excellent book The Mission of God, missiology is rarely treated as a subject for dogmatic reflection, given its more “practical” orientation. As Flett contends further, even attempts to root missiological thinking in the concept of missio Dei often functions merely as a wax nose of sorts which can then be molded to suit whatever missiological proclivities already exist.

Having just started to re-read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.3, I was struck by the clarity with which Barth discerned this problem and sought, in his final full contribution to CD, to overcome it. This is what Barth termed “the third problem of the doctrine of reconciliation” which he summarizes as follows:

The third problem of the doctrine of reconciliation is thus proposed and set by the simple fact that, as reconciliation takes place, it also declares itself. We may take a quick glance at the whole of the new chapter which opens up before us. The justification and sanctification of man include his vocation, as his pride and sloth also include his falsehood. The gathering and upbuilding of the community include its sending. The faith and love of the Christian include Christian hope. At the end of this third part of the doctrine of reconciliation, when it is a matter of the Christiankarlbarth community and the life of the individual Christian, we shall have to speak of the work of the Holy Spirit in which the event of reconciliation is concretely active and perceptible in this character of self-declaration, establishing knowledge and evoking confession.

But, as already indicated, it does not have this character only when it is active and perceptible in this work and there are men whose participation is shown in the fact that they follow the calling issued to them. In itself it is the basis of knowledge even where there does not correspond to it the knowledge of a single man. It speaks, it declares and glorifies itself, it is out-going and self-communicative, even before it attains its goal in the creaturely world in which it takes place, and to that extent without attaining it. The power with which it does attain its goal in the work of the Holy Spirit rests upon the fact that already in itself it is outgoing and self-communicative, announcing, displaying and glorifying itself. It is not merely light but the source of light. As the light of eternal life it is eternal light in the midst of the darkness of the human world which surrounds and threatens it. It is victorious and powerful even when it is only moving towards its victory. Its actual victory is accomplished in the work of the Holy Spirit.

But the work of the Holy Spirit in and to the Christian community and its members, in which it is recognisable and perceptible as self-declaration in calling as well as justification and sanctification, in the sending of the Christian community into the world as well as its gathering and upbuilding, in the hope as well as the faith and love of Christians—this work of the Holy Spirit creates new facts only to the extent that the revelatory character of reconciliation is confirmed in it, and such phenomena as the knowing and confessing community, and individual Christians as its members, are introduced amongst other world phenomena, having their own basis in the revelatory character of reconciliation and to that extent in the event of reconciliation.

This objectivity of even its revelatory character must be emphasised so expressly because misunderstanding can so easily creep in, as if the problem of the knowledge, understanding and explanation of reconciliation, or more generally of the doctrine of reconciliation as such, of the question how there can possibly be even the most rudimentary theology and proclamation of reconciliation, were really a problem of the theory of human knowledge and its spheres and limitations, its capacities and competencies, its possible or impossible approximation to this object…. But this reference is the last word of the doctrine of reconciliation itself. It is only as such that it can be meaningful, namely, as a reference to the fact that in the power of reconciliation itself, i.e., of its character as revelation, in virtue of the self-attestation of Jesus Christ, there are world phenomena which have their basis in it. If this reference is not to be left hanging in the air, it is necessary to hold fast not only to the objectivity of reconciliation as such and its occurrence in the world, but also to the objectivity of its character as revelation, to the a priori nature of its light in face of all human illumination and knowledge. [Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of reconciliation, Part 3.1, London; New York: T&T Clark, 10-11.]

What Barth writes here, especially in this last paragraph, strikes me as being of utmost importance when it comes to thinking about the church’s mission. However we may give lip service to Christ’s prophetic office (in distinction to his kingly and priestly offices), the reality is that we often fall prey to the misunderstanding highlighted by Barth: “as if the problem of the knowledge, understanding and explanation of reconciliation [e.g. proclamation of the gospel to the nations] … were really a problem of the theory of human knowledge and its spheres and limitations, its capacities and competencies, its possible or impossible approximation to this object”. If a theology of mission falls under the category of mere “practical theology” (which is typically multi-disciplinary in its approach, incorporating various social and human sciences) rather than constituting an integral component of the doctrine of reconciliation as such, then it can tend to find its operative basis in philosophical theories of human knowledge, psychological theories of conversion, social theories of communication, etc., rather than in the actual way it has been made known by God himself in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

What this means, therefore, is that missiology, a theology of mission, must reclaim its place as a properly theological or dogmatic area of Christian thought. As Barth contends, this is what John (1:4) means when he says that the life of the Word incarnate was the light of the world, the light that shines unimpeded in the darkness. In other words, the eternal life which is ours in Christ is not separate from the light by which that life is made known. Rather, it is the life of Christ itself that shines the light of its own knowledge. Christ revealed to the world in the gospel is indissolubly bound to the world reconciled to God in Christ. As Barth puts it, the reality of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ “speaks, it declares and glorifies itself, it is out-going and self-communicative, even before it attains its goal in the creaturely world in which it takes place, and to that extent without attaining it.” I think that exploring this further, with specific attention given to its basis in Scripture, would make for a very interesting and thrilling area of research.

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