Monday, February 8, 2016

"Evangelical Theology" by Karl Barth: A Review

While in seminary, I took an interesting class on the life and theology of Karl Barth who is widely regarded as the greatest theologian of the 20th Century. The first book of Barth's we had to read was Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. The book is taken from a series of lectures he first gave in Basal and later in America. Though I question some of Barth's theological conclusion, I really enjoyed this book.

What follows is my summary of each chapter. For those going into the ministry, training for the ministry, or consider themselves theologically geared, read this book from a great theologian - love him or hate him. This will not read like a typical review, so please forgive me.

Barth sets out to discuss and define Evangelical Theology which, to Barth, consists of the New Testament and Reformation theology. Furthermore, Evangelical is not a confession nor is it tied to a denomination (or even to Protestantism as he notes), rather evangelicalism is theology laid out in Scripture and accepted by the 16th Century Reformers.

In his discussion on the Word, Barth defines the Word of God as "the Word that God spoke, speaks, and will speak in the midst of all men." God speaks to men through his Word and through the Word (logos). The Bible is not ambiguous, but rather succeeds in what God intended it to do.

The Biblical writers are significant to think about and to understand. It was to them - the prophets, the apostles, and so on - that God choose to reveal His Divine Word to. It was to the apostles that Christ spoke directly to. Barth notes that "the Logos of God in their witness is the concrete concern of evangelical theology."

Rather than use the word "Church," Barth suggests using the word "Community." These "communion of saints," listen to the Word and ready themselves for action. Theology, Barth notes, would be an "utter failure" if it is not theology for the community. As Barth puts it, "theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community."
But all of this talk about the Word of God, the Community, the Witnesses, etc. is theology with a presumed power. We must be careful, Barth argues, not to think that this power is found inside us, in our ability, or in our own knowledge. Put the real power in everything we do in theology must be from the Holy Spirit and from nowhere else.

"Evangelical Theology is always history," therefore, we must examine how theology affects our lives, Barth argues. The first thing we must reflect upon is the wonder that theology brings. Barth points out that if we are not left astonished after partaking in this task of theology, then we have missed something. A proper theology should leave us in wonder of the God we are seeking to understand.

But admiration and wonder are not enough for evangelical theology. Barth traces the history of unorthodox theologians who were left in "wonder" after studying theology, but still missed the point. Therefore, we must become involved in theology.
Wonder and concern, however, still are not enough to make a "theologian a theologian." One must also have commitment. Barth, here, points out that theology must not only must we desire something from Him, but also for Him.

The first danger that Barth mentions toward theology is solitude. Unlike most professions, theology must be done in "isolation" from the rest of the world. Very few really care about the demands of exegesis and theology like the pastor, priest, and theologian. It is dangerous for theologians to be surrounded by a busy and active world and fail to escape to the task of theology that can only be found in solitude. But it is worth it. Barth points out that though religion might be a private affair the work of theology and the work of God is not limited to the isolated, but for the whole world.

If solitude is a danger from the outside, doubt is a danger on the inside. Doubt arises in many ways, and Barth identifies two main areas, and all of them bring about dangers for the pastor and theologian. Barth sees this as dangerous and perhaps a greater threat to theology than solitude.

Even greater than solitude (a threat from the outside) and doubt (a threat from the inside) is temptation, as what Barth sees as being a threat from above. Barth makes this temptation that of God withdrawing himself and His Holy Spirit from the theologian and burden that may create. There is no greater calling than theology and temptation from God is of great danger. But why would God withdraw Himself? There are many answers, one of which, Barth argues, is that God is not obligated to show Himself, even to men who are set about a good work, for we remain sinners.

What is the answer to these threats? "Endure and bear." Though the theological task is difficult full of many threats, the theologian must persevere through it all for the task of theology is much too important. But trusting in hope and enduring, we will see God at work in our lives and in the lives of our people. God is reconciling His people to Himself, and we get to be a part of that.

Barth opens a new subject in this theological work. He now discusses what must be done in theology, and he begins with the act of prayer. Barth begins discussing how theology must be done with great humility under the distress of the judgment of God. Theology is no small task. Therefore, prayer must be done throughout the process of theology. As theologians, we must " "Ora et labora (pray and work)!"

Because theology is not a work of something, but of someone, we must be in tuned with God by both praying to Him and listening to His voice. Theology, Barth points out, is God’s "address," to man. Through His Word He speaks to His creation.

Theology can only be accomplished through the unity of prayer and study. Prayer alone does not make one a great theologian, rather, it makes one’s theology "empty." Study, like prayer, must never cease. It is to consume the theologian in all that he does and says. To study to merely pass a test is not real study. Rather, we must always remain students of theology even to our death.

But prayer and study, too, are not enough. The theologian must also be a servant. He is to both serve God in all that he does and to also serve man with all that he has. The theologian must never find answers to questions or dive deeper into study in order to simply elevate themselves. Rather, the servant theologian must also be able use his study and prayer to the benefit of the community.

The dominate purpose of doing theology, according to Barth, is to do the work that is both pleasing to God and helpful to man. Unless this principle is applied and practiced, the work of theology will never be a good work. Therefore, everything discussed by Barth so far are critical in order to fulfill this good work of pleasing God and helping man.

The last theme Barth looks at is the fulfillment of this good work. Unless one does theology in and out of love, theology refrains from being a good work. It is essentially the root of everything else Barth discusses. Barth points out how Paul described theological knowledge without love: it becomes puffed up. This is a real danger that the theologian must avoid. To do theology for the sake of knowledge and pride fails to make theology a good work. But theology done in love brings glory to God and help for the community.

For more on Barth:
Is Karl Barth a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?
From Lewis' Pen: On Karl Barth 
The Greatest Theologians
Where Have All the Apologist Gone?
"The Great Theologians" by Gerald McDermott: A Review   
The Great Theologians: An Interview with Gerald McDermott
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