Once again, I have been soundly reprimanded by Karl Barth. Just when I think I can say goodbye to my theological studies and career, the twentieth century Swiss theologian, emphatically informs me that I can’t. Why? Because we are all theologians.
In his book Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Barth gives a brief exploration of evangelical theology. The book consists of a series of lectures, delivered in his only visit to the United States in 1962 at the University of Chicago and Princeton Seminary, and several complementary chapters. The lectures focus mainly on the content of evangelical theology, while the chapters, interestingly, move into the realm of the work, responsibility and difficulties of the theologian. The lectures have the feel of systematic theology, explaining the Word, as first and foremost Christ and only secondarily as Scripture, the role of the early Biblical witnesses, the responsibility of the church community and the impact of the Holy Spirit throughout history.
The additional chapters, however, have more of a sense of personal reflection, an acknowledgement and acceptance of both the joys and struggles of the theologian’s task. In the section concerning Theological Existence, Barth examines four requirements of the theologian – wonder, concern, commitment and faith. In the next section, The Threat to Theology, Barth reflects on solitude, doubt, temptation and hope as issues that the theologian must face. The last section, Theological Work, is Barth’s acknowledgement that theology must be done with an attitude of prayer, as a studious pursuit, an act of service and always performed in love.
My reprimand was found in chapter four – The Community. For Barth, the community is the ‘communion of the saints’, those that have been moved and affected by the Word, by Christ, and participate in Christ’s message and call. Barth pointedly avoids the word ‘Church’ for this body of believers. The primary witnesses were those that walked and worked with Christ and who wrote of his words and deeds. The community becomes the secondary witnesses, those ‘called to believe in, and simultaneously to testify to, the Word in the world’ (p 37). Theology holds a special place in this community. Despite being a human work, and therefore prone to inadequacies, theology is the search for truth concerning the God as revealed in Scripture.
This question of truth concerns not only the whole community, but individual Christians as well. Their life is a witness of Christ, as much as that of the corporate body. The individual is therefore just as responsible for that search for truth in the witness of their lives. To make it clear, Barth states, ‘every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian’ (p40).
While he acknowledges that there is a special commissioning for those called to be theologians by profession, the individual Christian can not escape their responsibility to continually seek out, research, dwell and wrestle with their faith and the one who enables it. It can’t be carelessly relegated to a select few within the community. It can’t be a little hobby of only those who are interested. It can’t be dismissed as a waste of time. It can’t be understood as the pursuit only of the intellectual. For the witness of the community to be substantial, responsible, trustworthy and forceful, all must be engaged in the search for truth. It is faith seeking understanding, fides quaerens intellectum.
So, what specifically is this body of theologians called to do? Barth offers three responsibilities. Firstly, to understand the canon of Holy Scripture through questioning, exploring and knowing the content of the writings contained within Scripture. Secondly, to critically analyse the creeds, dogmas and articles of the Church by weighing them up against the Word and Scripture. These are human expressions of a particular time, place and setting and need to be updated, critiqued and explained to ensure any ongoing relevance. Thirdly, the theology of the past must be engaged with but also questioned. This is to ensure that the errors, the weaknesses and shortcomings of this human endeavour are exposed and, hopefully, not repeated. This requires continual conversation with the Word, with Scripture, and the contemporary world.
Barth does not run from the fact that this is a difficult and responsible task. While some will undertake this professionally, all Christians are expected to wrestle with God. There is in one sense a very real isolation for the theologian, professional or otherwise, due to their separation from and required analysis of the world around them. Doubts are also inevitable when dealing with the unknowable God of creation who has revealed God’s self in Christ. One cannot help but question the reality of the very object of one’s task – this is part of the ‘job description’. Questioning shouldn’t be avoided, rather it should be seen as an essential aspect of searching for the truth. Because theology is a human task, it will undergo a testing, what Barth calls a refining of fire, by God. Theologians require great humility to hold their work lightly.
It is not, however, without its joys. Barth, in fact, calls theology a ‘happy science’ (p 12). It is assisted by the sovereign and effective power of the Holy Spirit who continually reveals and makes accessible the God of Scripture. It is under-girded by hope in a God who has revealed Godself in the crucified Christ. A God who would so love their creation that they would become a man in time and space.
Theology is nourished by the prayers of all believers. While it may be a studious endeavour, it is also an act of service, not just for the individual or the communion of saints, but for the whole of society as it seeks for truth. It is performed out of a deep love for God, for the community and for the broken world that it finds itself in.
So now that Barth has reminded me of my role as a member of the community of saints, of my responsibility to engage with theology, Scripture, Christ, and the world in which I live, what now? Where do I go from here? Perhaps I will start with Genesis.
Dr Katherine Grocott