Theology begins with certainty
June 2, 2014
“A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.”
– Hans Martensen
I was given a copy of his Christian Dogmatics, which has proven fascinating reading. Martensen is not an easy figure to categorize. He was influenced by Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Hegel, but he was also shaped by the Lutheran mystic, Jakob Böhme, which resulted in a volume dedicated to expounding Böhme’s theology. If we were to consider the “subjective” versus “objective” orientations in (respectively) Schleiermacher and Hegel’s theologies, Martensen gravitated more toward the latter, while pushing against what he perceived in both to be a problematic pantheism, which fails to account for the personal God of divine revelation. Mortensen is committed to the church and setting forth the church’s doctrine.
I have glanced ahead at some of his doctrinal treatments, and there is much to like and much to question – but I will reserve greater judgment until I have read the whole book. He is a gifted writer and mercifully clear for a continental theologian steeped in the aforementioned names.
For readers of this blog, I think you will enjoy Martensen’s definition of dogmatic theology:
A confessing and witnessing church cannot be conceived to exist without a definite sum of doctrines or dogmas. A dogma is not a δόξα, not a subjective, human opinion, not an indefinite, vague notion; nor is it a mere truth of reason, whose universal validity can be made clear with mathematical or logical certainty: it is a truth of faith, derived from the authority of the word and revelation of God; — a positive truth, therefore, positive not merely by virtue of the positiveness with which it is laid down, but also by virtue of the authority with which it is sealed. …
Dogmatics is not only a science of faith, but also a knowledge grounded in, and drawn from faith. It is not a mere historical exhibition of what has been, or now is, true for others, without being true for the author; nor is it a philosophical knowledge of Christian truth, obtained from a stand-point outside of faith and the church. For even supposing — what yet we by no means concede — that a scientific insight into Christian truth is possible, without Christian faith, yet such philosophizing about Christianity, even though its conclusions were ever so favourable to the church, could not be called dogmatics. Theology stands within the pale of Christianity; and only the dogmatic theologian can be esteemed the organ of his science, who is also the organ of his church – which is not the case with the mere philosopher, whose only aim is to promote the cause of pure science. This desire to attain an intelligent faith, of which dogmatics is the product; this intellectual love of Christian truth, which should be found especially in the teachers of the church, is inseparable from a personal experience of Christian truth.
And now the most interesting bit:
…speculation which treats the truthfulness of Christianity as something problematical, which looks for certainty respecting it in the results of its own investigations, cannot be called dogmatical speculation. For dogmatics assumes at the outset the absolute truth of Christianity, independently of all speculation. The δος που στω [place upon which to stand], so often expressed by an inquiring philosophy, is for dogmatic theology answered at once; the theologian does not make the truth depend on his investigation, but only seeks to gain by his thought a firmer grasp of the truth which he already accepts as absolutely certain, and at which he first arrived in quite another way than that of speculation. …The theologian confesses himself to be a Realist, that he thinks, not for the sake of thinking, but for the sake of truth; he confesses, to use Lessing’s pertinent simile, that the divine revelation holds the same relation to his investigations as does the answer of an arithmetical problem, given at the outset, to the problem itself. Dogmatics, therefore, does not make doubt its starting-point, as philosophy is often required to do; it is not developed out of the void of skepticism, but out of the fullness of faith; it does not make its appearance in order by its arguments to prop up a tottering faith, to serve as a crutch for it, as if, in its old age, it had become frail and staggering. It springs out of the perennial, juvenile vigour of faith, out of the capacity of faith to unfold from its own depths a wealth of treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, to build up a kingdom of acknowledged truths, by which it illumines itself as well as the surrounding world. Dogmatics serves, therefore, not to rescue faith in the time of its exigency, but to glorify it – in gloriam fidei, in gloriam dei. A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.
[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 1-4]
I like it. This is an especially beautiful way to express the theological task: “It springs out of the perennial, juvenile vigour of faith, out of the capacity of faith to unfold from its own depths a wealth of treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, to build up a kingdom of acknowledged truths, by which it illumines itself as well as the surrounding world.”
Kiekegaard was not a fan.
Image: A young Hans Lassen Martensen. Lithograph after painting by D. Monies. (source)