Friday, March 11, 2011

The End of Dogmatics

       Dogmatics is interpretation. In fact, everything is interpretation. There is no way to avoid interpretation in this world. We may fool ourselves by saying that we are translating the words spoken to us, but we never truly hear the words as they are spoken. In fact, according Soren Kierkegaard, as soon as we try to speak our words, we enter into interpretation which gets rid of the truth that we are trying to express. Even when approaching doctrine, we must and only can interpret.

   Brunner states that "Dogmatics is interpretation."(pg. 70)  There is no way to understand the message of Holy Scripture in it's pure form. In fact, there is no pure form of Holy Scripture. What Brunner means by this is that Holy Scripture was revealed in a particular time, at a particular place, to a particular person. When that person wrote the words that were later canonized, the message had been changed. The testimony of the apostles reflects their human character. And their human character "means that it is coloured by the frailty and imperfection of all that is human." (pg. 34) Now, we wonder if our task as faithful readers of Scripture should try to peel away the layers of frailty and imperfection.

  The answer to this is a triumphant No! in the vein of Barth's response to Brunner. (see Natural Theology: Comprising "Nature and Grace" by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the Reply "No!" by Dr. Karl Barth) Brunner continues to say "ideas which our forefathers in the Faith used to express the truth we hold in common, must be freshly translated by us, and be replaced by others, in order to make clear what they meant." (pg. 70) He follows this assertion by asking what sense does it make in this day and age to speak of the "Three Persons of the Trinity"? When we speak in this way, the doctrine of the Trinity laid out in Scripture and by the early church "sounds really heterodox and polytheistic." (pg. 70) For Brunner, when we do not interpret the doctrines of the church in a contemporary way, we lose our understanding of the ideas being expressed, and therefore can jettison the ideas themselves.

   Now, this might sound like we are trying to make the Gospel relevant for our age. That is not the case! In fact, we are trying to make our age relevant to the Gospel. What is at stake is not whether or not the Gospel is relevant, but whether or not we understand it. For "What is so often offered to us as 'genuinely Biblical theology (that is, theology without translation) is the very opposite; it is a stale and lifeless theology, which is unable to make the Gospel intelligible in the language of the day." (pg. 71) According to Brunner, the world and words of Scripture become something historical, and artifact to be studied and examined, which takes the life away from it. More strikingly, "to give up translation means to abandon the effort to make the message our own." (Pg. 71) Simply stated, until we put the Scriptures and dogmas in our own words, they are someone else's words that have little connection to us.

    Yet, we have to be careful as we go about translating. The danger in translation, any translation, is that we might lose or even betray the central concern and message. Thus, we need to give a "faithful" rendering. We, as part of a faith community, need to be careful how we read the text and how we apply it to our lives and thoughts.  "The ideas which serve the process of appropriation must remain subordinate to the subject which is the writer's main concern. When these ideas become independent, when they are erected into a system, into a form or a mould, into which the content of the Christian message is to be poured, there the Gospel has been violated." (Pg. 71-72) In short, when we try to make the Gospel say what we think it should say so that it fits our ideas and our personal preferences, we have left the realm of translation and have entered the world of the author. Even though this idea or personal preference can be "biblical", we have lost the essence of what is Biblical.

      This thought can signal the end of trying to have a dogmatic, over-arching system. Brunner says again, "Wherever dogmatics becomes a system, or is systematically dominated by a fundamental idea then already there has been a fatal declension from the attitude of the faithful translator. The very thing that makes such an impression, and attracts people with good brains: rigid unity of thought, in dogmatics is the infallible sign of error. Revelation cannot be summed up in a system." (pg. 72)

   I see this latching onto a fundamentally biblical idea present in the Church today, trying to read everything into a neat formula (perhaps catch-phrase?). The major formula or catch-phrase in the Reformed world that is steadly making it's way through non-Reformed churches is the meta-narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption. Now, I do not question that this is biblical, though I wonder, through Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, if we can separate these ideas out. And I understand why Al Wolters put this forth in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Yet, I think we have to ask ourselves, due to Brunner's posthumous prompting, are we using it as a mould? What else are we using in our churches today in this manner?

  To Brunner the last word, "faith means the destruction of human self-will, so also is it the destruction of human systesm. Dogmatics as a system, even when it intends to be a system of revelation, is the disuised dominion of the rational element over faith" (pg. 72) 

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