Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Gerhard Sauter, professor of systematic and ecumenical theology at the University of Bonn, Germany, reflects on the role of dogmatics for the life of the church today. Sauter insists that dogmatics is more a phenomenon than a doctrinal system, more an effort to open the church to the living Word of God than a handbook of orthodoxy. This dynamic understanding of the church’s theological task makes Sauter’s book of immense value to pastors and other theologians who believe that theological reflection has its principal locus not in the academy but in the church.
Sauter defines dogmatics as that which the church is required to say at all times and under all circumstances in order to remain grounded in and open to the faith and the hope to which God continually calls it. Dogmatics thus functions theologically somewhere between confessions of faith and formulations of doctrine. Dogmatics is not simply kerygma; rather, dogmatics helps the church to examine its message. But neither is dogmatics the same thing as formal church teaching, i.e., the church’s effort to remain the church in the face of specific and critical challenges to its life. Rather, dogmatics puts church doctrines in conversation with each other so that they will point dynamically to God’s abiding promise, which always comes to us from outside us (extra nos) yet to us and for us.
Dogmatics, then, is first about helping the church to hear and only then about helping it to speak. Dogmatics assists us in developing a capacity for wise theological judgment. Here Sauter acknowledges his debt to George Lindbeck and his notion of doctrine as rules of grammar. Again, dogmatics is not primarily an academic discipline or a body of scholarly knowledge but the church’s continuing vocation of receiving and proclaiming God’s Word.
While deeply influenced by Karl Barth’s view of dogmatics, Sauter is also appreciative of aspects of Paul Tillich’s thought. Dogmatics is not limited to assisting the church in its task of proclamation; it is also deeply related to matters of worship, pastoral care, and mission. Sauter’s reflections on church life show him at his best, as when he insists that pastoral care relies less on psychological technique and more on the deep resources of prayer. His brief comments on mission are also beautifully crafted: Christians go into the world not as those who have a message that others must simply accept, but as sinners who confess their own need for God’s forgiveness even as they invite every human to beseech God.
A North American audience will nevertheless find much of the book slow going. We are more familiar with the notion of systematic theology than dogmatics. Moreover, much of Sauter’s book is written at a high level of abstraction. He spends more time reflecting on the nature of theological reflection than offering dogmatically grounded insight into specific issues in the church’s life today. Translation from the German may exacerbate the difficulty (although the language of the English is itself smooth).
Still, Sauter makes an essential contribution to defining the character and purpose of what we might call “church theology,” as distinct from theology for the academy. This distinction (my own) is too crass, but Sauter helpfully reminds us that the church needs theological reflection for the sake of faith, and not just in order to engage interesting intellectual questions. He shows us that this kind of dogmatics is not dogmatism but, on the contrary, a radical openness to God’s in-breaking reign. Sauter is therefore suspicious of any contextual theology that would place theological reflection in service of particular human needs, rather than in the context of God’s saving promises, as set forth in the Scriptures.
Not all will agree with Sauter’s judgments on these matters, but his tone is consistently irenic and inviting. What is missing from my point of view is an acknowledgment of pastoral experience as a rich and necessary resource for dogmatics. Theological reasoning for the church will finally matter only if the church, led by its pastors, draws on its own experience of the living God, whom it meets as it worships and studies, and as it encounters the deep needs of a frightened yet God-loved humanity.
John P. Burgess
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, FALL 2005, VOL. 5, #1
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