The more time I spend with Karl Barth’s writing, the more amazing it truly becomes for me. There is this story that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote called Leaf by Niggle. It is a story about an artist named Niggle (the name means “obsessed with details”) who is so anxious about his vision of a tree he wants to paint that he never is able to finish his life’s work. Tolkien wrote that short story just before finally sitting down to write “The Lord of the Rings”. He had spent a decade or more just scribbling notes, inventing worlds, developing languages, imagining cultures into being. But he hadn’t written the actual story yet. Tolkien was Niggle.
I don’t know for certain, but the more I read Barth’s work, the more I understand that he must have worked tirelessly for a lifetime on the details of his Dogmatics before he ever wrote down one word. And that includes the question of where to begin.
But it is obvious, at least to me, that Barth began in the right place – before we speak of God, shouldn’t we first consider the questions of “how will my speaking of God be faithful?” It seems to me that so much of Christian speech in my own time and culture is an afterthought at best. That is why I think this beginning part of Barth’s Dogmatics is so incredibly important for our own context.
“The work in which the Church submits to self-examination falls into three circles which intersect in such a way that the center of each is also within the circumference of the other two… The criterion of past, future, and therefore present Christian utterance is thus the being of the Church, namely, Jesus Christ, God in His gracious revealing and reconciling address to man. Does Christian utterance derive from Him? Does it lead to Him? Is it conformable to Him? ”
Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics 1.1.1.)
Barth doesn’t give us a diagram of his rubric for “examining” the faithfulness of Christian speech. But I drew up this graphic that I think captures his aims in that paragraph.
There is a lot that could be said about Barth’s rubric for examining our speech about God, but I just want to point out one observation in Barth’s wording. The logical and usual way to name these “tenses” is to say them in order – past, present and future. But Barth doesn’t do that. He says, “past, future, and therefore present…” I think the reason is a practical one. I think the American Evangelical tendency, when it does decide to discern faithfulness, has jumped immediately to the present. We wonder if what we have already said is in keeping with the way Jesus would have said it – OR, in our better moments, we wonder if what we are about to say is in keeping with the way Jesus would say it.
But Barth wants us to begin with the past. Is our speech about God in keeping with the host of faithful speech that scriptures, early church fathers, and tradition bear witness to? Then, Barth moves past the “present” context and considerations to the future. Is our speech about God aimed at God’s ultimate telos and ends in human history? Only when we examine the faithfulness of our speech in light of these two moves (past and future) will we be able to discern our current context.
I understand that this is a demanding discipline – to submit our speech to a rubric of self-examination prior to utterance. But isn’t it necessary to be cautious about our speech concerning God? Do we fear God or not?