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August Article of the Month
‘An Extraordinarily Acute Embarrassment’: The Doctrine of Angels in Barth's Göttingen Dogmatics
Study of Barth's doctrine of angels has languished, and the time is ripe for a thorough reassessment. While any full account will centre on the magisterial theology of angels in the Church Dogmatics, much can be gained from a close, contextually informed reading of the earlier treatment of angels in the Göttingen dogmatics lectures. These lectures are shaped by a twofold procedural commitment: Barth's presentation is ordered, on one hand, to a recognisably modern conception of the logical content of Christian preaching; and it conforms, on the other hand, to a doctrinal sequence recommended by the dogmatic textbooks of the classical Reformed tradition. A tension between these two aspects becomes visible in Barth's handling of the doctrine of angels – a tract of teaching by which he is visibly unsettled. Barth accordingly attends with particular care to two fundamental modern objections to the doctrine – namely that it involves a superfluous reduplication of anthropological themes and that it has no independent doctrinal standing. The first objection exploits the observation that the doctrine of angels traditionally stands in close proximity to the doctrine of the human creature; the second follows from the claim that Christian preaching, and the dogmatic theology which serves it, attends strictly to the relationship between God and humanity, realised and revealed in the gospel. Barth's attempts to respond to these criticisms, and so to draw out the necessity and the proper dogmatic status of the doctrine of angels, are traced in detail. Angels and demons, conceived as real spiritual forces, are ineluctable features of the situation within which human moral agency is exercised. And angels are ingredients in, though not central to, the scriptural depiction of the relationship between God and humanity. Barth's elaboration of the positive features of Protestant scholastic angelology is summarised, and the motivating impulses and constructive potential of his theology of angels are briefly noted: Barth's exposition may be read as a complex exercise in theological self-differentiation; a recommendation of a distinctive style of biblical reasoning; and a creative contribution to the revitalisation of a culture of Christian witness.
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