McCormack on Barth on Prolegomena

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s case against Prolegomena

Secularism as an argument for the necessity of apologetics was encountered by Barth in 1932 in virtually the same form in which it was expressed by Gilkey, Ogden, et al. Barth wrote, ‘At this point the customary procedure, followed with new zeal in modern work, is to indicate the change in general cultural awareness and the general world-picture which has taken place in the last 300 years and called theology as such in question … This altered situation, we are told, is what makes dogmatic prolegomena necessary today.’ The argument made little impression on him. ‘There is no theological foundation for the assumed difference between our own and earlier times. Has there ever been an age in which theology has not basically confronted a radical negation of the revelation believed in the Church? . . . the struggle between the unbelieving reason of man and the revelation believed in the Church has always been with fundamentally the same seriousness the problem of Christian utterance in general and of dogmatics in particular. Hence we need not regard the tragedy of modern godlessness as anything out of the ordinary…’ (CD., 1/1, pp. 26-8) If secularism was not new in the 60s, neither did it have the strength commonly imagined. In his recent contribution to the Christian Century’s ‘Change of Mind’ series, Langdon Gilkey professes to see in the present context, the ‘re-evaluation of the secular’ and the ‘reappearance of the religious’. (Gilkey, ‘Theology for a Time of Troubles’. Christian Century (April 29, 1981), p. 475.) What this suggests is that the social upheaval of the 60s was not as radical as was thought. Seen up close, the 60s indeed seemed revolutionary. Taking a longer view, from a perspective fifteen years later, the historical continuities are more striking than the discontinuities. That President Reagan could find a chord of response in the voting electorate with descriptions of America as a ‘chosen nation’ and a ‘city set on a hill’ is just one indication of the close ties our day has with the nineteenth century. Many others could be adduced. What this means is that systematic theologians ought to exercise a great deal of caution before concluding that a ‘new’ situation has given us grounds for a thorough reconception of the entire task of theology. Systematicians would be well-advised to take a longer view of the historical situation.

from “Divine Revelation and Human Imagination: Must we Choose Between the Two?” Scottish Journal of Theology 37.4 (1984), 454 n.62.

Bruce McCormack on sources and norms in theology

Bruce McCormack’s distinction between sources and norms in theology

What do we mean when we speak of “sources” of theology? Are “sources” the same thing as “norms” or are they different?

Logically, a “source” may mean at least two things. First, it may mean a point of departure for theological reflection, a body of data, a content which we presuppose and on the basis of which we then pose theological questions and seek answers. Where “source” is taken in this sense, it is impossible that it should not also function as a “norm” (a criterion) for making judgments, since a point of departure will necessarily control what kind of questions are raised and therefore what kind of answers we are able to give. Though some theologians will make a theoretical distinction between “sources” and “norms” in theology, if they consciously or unconsciously use the word “sources” to speak of starting-points for reflection, they are treating their “sources” as normative. But, then, alternatively, a “source” may be used in a much more modest way — and this brings us to a second possible meaning of the term. A “source” may be simply an occasion, a stimulus for theological reflection which finally looks elsewhere for its norms. Here a clear distinction of “source” and “norm” is maintained.

from personal lecture notes

With the above McCormack invites us to adopt a distinction between two kinds of sources: (1) points of departure, and (2) occasions. The former function as norms of reflection; the latter merely as stimuli that themselves remain subject to antecedent norms. To illustrate what work this distinction does, McCormack continues as follows:

We do have an obligation as theologians to address issues raised by the world we live in and that means addressing [for example] scientific theories [as well as philosophies, or political or cultural phenomena, etc]. But the fact that scientific theories are “constructs” of the scientific imagination ought to warn us against taking any theory at face value. Scientific theories may rightly provide the occasion for theological reflection and so be a “source” in the modest sense that I sketched earlier, but they must never be allowed to become a “source” in the bold sense of providing us with a point of departure for doing our theology. The results of scientific research need to be assimilated carefully through a process which grants to theology its own integrity and does not sell out to the “spirit of the times.”