Theology begins with certainty

Hans Lassen Martensen som ung. Litografi efter maleri af D. Monies

“A mind starved by doubt has never been able to produce a dogmatic system.”

— Hans Martensen


Hans Martensen (1808-1884) was a Lutheran theologian and a professor at Copenhagen prior to his appointment as bishop of Zealand in the Church of Denmark.

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)



    • Yes, I will likely look through it after I finish with Martensen’s dogmatics. Martensen strikes me as a highly creative mind, responsibly so.

  1. It sounds awfully smug. It must be said that it makes revelation of the Lord of Hosts something rather warm and soothing instead of earth-shaking and eye-opening.

    He sounds very affable and endearing, and that is why I’d think Kierkegaard would find him so poisonous.

    • That is my guess too at Kierkegaard’s estimation of Martensen. There is a somewhat recent book on their relationship by Curtis Thompson, Following the Cultured Public’s Chosen One: Why Martensen Mattered to Kierkegaard. I may look into it.

      As you can probably guess, I am inclined to hold together the “warm and soothing” with the “earth-shaking and eye-opening.”

  2. I’ve been reading Schleiermacher again, and my guess is that he would want to say faith begins with (subjective) certainty and that theology, which represents the theoretical construction and public exposition of that revelation of faith, deserves the full arsenal of critical scholarship, because it by definition starts with uncertainty.

    Certainly Martensen has the catholic tradition on his side, and there’s something appealing about sticking your finger in the post-Enlightenment theologian’s eye. But is this the sort of absolute claiming that’s inadmissible in this modern age (remember the recent stuff on Barth’s failure), that’s little more than ‘bad faith’? Perhaps this is why some folks read a smugness in Martensen here: he knows better, but he smugly doesn’t give a damn.

    • It’s not that he knows better, he was one of the Danish Hegelians, he was well aware of what he was doing. Certainty in the theo-philosophical machine that churns out truth from reality.

      There’s nothing wrong with an absolute claiming, except in our scholastic, post-modern authority. I’m a kind of biblicist. But Martensen’s work is of the failed Bourgeoisie network that thought it could harness Heaven and Earth. Kierkegaard, no matter his confusions, passions, and errors, was a judgment on this enterprise.

    • Chris, yes, most people — including other theologians — find it intolerable to assert the radical freedom of theology from contingencies that require support/verification from elsewhere. These other contingencies, after all, are what give credibility and respectability to theology. Barth would have none of that. (Remember Matthew Rose’s claim that “the dignity of human reason” arises from our ability to have a natural knowledge of God’s existence, though not the predicates apart from his existence!)

      • That’s helpful, Kevin. Thanks. It’s hard to even imagine Martensen’s project today, and the Kierkegaardian in me recoils . . .

  3. Maybe part of my dislike for Martensen also comes from the fact that he looks like the villain from Frozen.


    I finished reading Dorrien’s work on modern philosophy and theology, and I figure it’s his opinion that that same thought about theology’s freedom is what made Barth relatively unknown, outside of the Church, and made Tillich into a super star.

    I’d reckon theology is like a pair of spectacles we wear, everyone has a pair and some are broken, distorted, and others, supernaturally given, let us see the Lord Jesus enlighten the world around us.

    The preceding was my attempt at a German sentence 🙂


    • I had to google “frozen villain,” since I’ve never seen the movie, and wow! You are right. That is an uncanny resemblance!

      Yes, that’s right about Barth and Tillich. To put it perhaps simplistically, Tillich was “relevant” for modern man; Barth was not. I work in a seminary library, and part of my task is to process gift books (donations) from retiring pastors. I love it — favorite part of my job. What has been astonishing to me is the number of book titles that deal with “modern man,” invariably from a Tillichian framework or perhaps Death-of-God sort of stuff — basically the in vogue theology from the 1950’s-70’s, when these retiring pastors were training for the ministry and first entering ministry. Even more disconcerting is the number of books on psychoanalysis that I’ve received, right next to Greek grammars and other standard seminary texts!

      • Well, Tillich’s thought was more or less existenitialist psychology/anthropology, so that would make sense of the large number of books like that that you see.

      • Yes, I will never forget having lunch, about six years ago when I lived in Iowa, with a semi-retired “pastor emeritus” of a first pres church that I had visited a couple times. We discussed his time at seminary, where he mentioned Tillich as his guy, and he found it odd (politely expressed) that I was so interested in Barth. After learning about his 30+ years of ministry, with no complaints whatsoever, he told me that if he had to do it all over again, he would have studied psychology instead of entering the ministry! His only reason was that psychology had greater insights into our humanity. I was stunned and just said, “huh.” That was pretty much the end of that conversation, and I never visited the church again.

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