One of my favorite books, which I discovered last year, is Evangelical Theology: An Introduction by Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart,” by the way). I got the book because I expected it to be an introduction to the theology of Barth, which is altogether interesting. That’s not what it was, as I found out, but I suppose that what it turned out to be was far better. Evangelical Theology is not so much a book of theology but a book about theology, specifically about the nature and doing of theology. It’s an introduction not to specific theological ideas, but to the project of theology itself.
I found this to be surprisingly refreshing. While I would like to (and at some point maybe will) cover a great deal of what this book has to say, I want to write briefly today about the second major section of the book, which is about “theological existence” (life as a theologian). Barth breaks down each major topic with four simple terms, and this one is possibly my favorite. What does it mean to be a theologian? What is it like? What should it be like? These are the questions Barth addresses in these four chapters.
In these chapters, Barth characterizes the theologian using four words, four traits. All I’ll really do in this post is give a summary of his presentation on these elements and explain how I can identify with them. So here are Barth’s four characterizing elements of theological life (and before I get into these, I should briefly note that Barth sees every Christian as at least something of a theologian):
- Wonder: To Barth, the first driving characteristic of the theologian is wonder. The theologian encounters the God of the Gospel, finds himself addressed by the Divine Word, and can only be astonished and amazed in return. He learns of God and finds that every new discovery is one more compelling. He is driven back again and again to see this wonder who is the God revealed in Christ.
- Concern: The next characteristic of the theologian for Barth is concern. The theologian is preeminently concerned with what he finds in his theological studies about the God of the Gospel and His ways and acts. They press on his mind day after day, questions and potential answers, and impose themselves upon every experience. He cannot escape constant concern for divine truth, no matter what is going on around him.
- Commitment: Barth also makes the point that the theologian is fundamentally committed to God and His Gospel, to the theological work of understanding through questions and answers. He yields his thoughts to God alone, and refuses to back down or give up from the fight to know divine truth. Most importantly, He seeks to know this truth on the basis of God’s personal revelation of Himself in Christ alone.
- Faith: Finally, and rather naturally, Barth points out the role of faith for the theologian. Faith for Barth is not just a leap into the dark. It’s not following the evidence, and then going one extra step. It’s neither blind fancy, nor the result of reason, not an existential decision. For Barth, faith is what happens when God shows up and encounters us personally in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, calling us and freeing us to become for Him and trust Him in this new opportunity. Faith consists constantly in this living in the God-created freedom to follow whatever He reveals of Himself in Christ. This is the rule of faith for all theology, and for every theologian, in Barth’s conception.
If it isn’t obvious, I can identify with these characteristics like nobody’s business. His chapter on concern in particular resonates with me deeply. Nothing I see or hear or experience can escape the wrath of theological concern in my mind. Truly, Barth’s description is my life.
If none of this makes sense to you, then I suppose you’re not a theologian. But if you are, you should see just how right and true this is. I plan to post more on this topic, and hopefully it will be beneficial to someone.