Book Review: Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
Karl Barth is a legend among theological scholars, and one that is often cited without having his complete thought rationalized by the deliverer. I imagine this is the case because Barth is overwhelmingly prolific and extensive in his writings. If one were to collect all of his works into one volume, there is no doubt the pages would exceed 10,000, which explains why many have not fully understood Barth’s complete theology. Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, provides scholars and religious leaders a concise introduction about Barth from Barth himself. Only one mind can fully categorize Barth’s theology and he does it in a short, yet profound manner found in this book. The following review will breakdown the four lectures that make up this book: The Place of Theology; Theological Existence; The Threat to Theology; Theological Work. This book proved to be a wonderful surprise and a breath of life into the theological masterworks of Karl Barth. The eternally rich and living God can be neither hired nor possessed, and cannot be carried around in some type of “intellectual or spiritual briefcase.” Theology is uncontrollable and through this book Barth is on a mission to express why.
The Place of Theology
According to Barth, theology has “taken too many pains to justify its own existence.” There are various means by which theology expresses itself and proper understanding of these means can help one grip theology on a deeper level. Evangelical Theology does a fantastic job at capturing the wonder and awe that are due to this daunting task; words, thoughts, intellectus fidei or understanding of faith can never do justice to God. Theology is often reduced to "pisteology" or the study of faith, but the object of theology is always God and should be pointed back to him.
Barth recognized that for some the theology itself might seem abstract. “it may seem like one of the nameless virgins found on the facades of many medieval churches,” he goes on to express. There is a distinct force that works within all human beings that draws them to desire a deeper and more thoroughly explained understanding of God (or some higher being). One of these forces is the feeling of wonder that fills a person. Generally speaking, wonder refers to a supernatural feeling one receives when they encounter something they have never met before. This type of excitement should capture the examiner of God’s Word as well. Along with wonder, Barth lists: concern, commitment, and faith. These are forces that must work together to lead a person into a more serious study of God. Wonderment alone is not satisfactory for the theologian, for they must have concern for others and being committed to the difficulty of faith despite the struggle. Like the gears of a clock, these forces simultaneously work together to strengthen the work of the theologian.
The Threat to Theology
The Bible is not a self-evident work and one that is constantly at risk of being abused or misinterpreted; “an introduction to evangelical theology necessarily involves taking account of this danger.” Doubt is one of these dangers, along with loneliness and melancholy. One of the things a theologian must be mindful of is how these dangers are shaping our theology. If one is defined by their doubt, or lives willingly in their temptation, they will fall short. Acknowledgment and acceptance are two different things: “theology is dedicated to the superior work and word of God,” therefore it should not complain at the fact it falls under threat. This is comforting for an aspiring minister/theologian to hear.
Barth spends an entire portion on hope. “The God whom we speak is no god imagined or devised by men,” but a God whose love and mercy is unconditional. The preincarnate, incarnate, and resurrected nature of Jesus bring about the glory of God the Creator and this provides an everlasting hope for humankind. This is a simplistic, yet powerful reminder of the majesty of God from a deep, thoughtful theologian. One of my favorite quotes in this book comes from this section when Barth claims, “The mystery of the special threat to theology is precisely its special hope.” This is a powerful message being studied and proclaimed, therefore powerful forces are working against it. Barth does a fine job at illuminating those dark threats and pointing the theologian back to the message of hope found in the message.
Barth explains his theological method in terms of prayer, study, service, and love. By this, Barth begins that prayer is humanity’s direct connection with God, the very thing it is attempting to understand. “Work must be,” according to Barth, “that sort of act that has the manner and meaning of a prayer in all its dimensions, relationships, and movement.” Prayer opens the human experience to its vulnerabilities and needs; prayer turns human being’s thought and speech about God towards God. From prayer, Barth claims that humanity is obligated to attempt an interpretation of study. Like prayer, study involves human participation. This is an area where Barth’s understanding of theology illuminates. He is able to take a fairly straightforward practice and elevate it to a significant level in the theological process. Most people would agree that study is important for understanding the nature of God, but Barth has a way of emphasizing that importance of a lifelong attitude of study.
The next two seem to hold the most weight for Barth. Although all four of these elements play a significant role, it is here that Barth’s characteristic passion bleeds through his words. He begins the section on service plainly: “Theological work is service.” Although he could have ended the entire section there, he elaborates on the idea by explaining that service of man is the “meaning, horizon, and goal of theological work.” A profound statement with even more profound implications. A discussed prior about the importance of the community to Barth, the service towards that community is held up in his mind. The complete expression of theological understanding is found in service through love. This naturally leads to the final action of Evangelical Theology, but a significant form of condensing this subject into one word. “Without love, theological work would be miserable polemics and a waste of words.” Love is what holds everything Barth claims together. It is the reason, the fulfillment, and the significance of Jesus and the divine instruction of humanity. The works of theology is fulfilled and made complete through love.
A solid conclusion to such an intelligent and thorough work can be found no other place than from Barth himself. Towards the end of the ‘study’ portion he states:
All those on the right or on the left, whose spirits are all too cheerful or naive, may and should repeatedly discover anew in the study of theology that everything in theology is somewhat more 'complicated' than they would like it to be. But those spirits who are all too melancholic and hypercritical should discover and rediscover that everything here is also much more 'simple' than they, with deeply furrowed brow, thought necessary to suppose.
A remarkable statement that speaks volumes of truth for the theologian. There is a deep embedded truth that is simple to find in all human’s. There is a desire to do what is right, an aspiration to love, and a significant concern for others. These can not be scientifically explained, but when fully embraced have the power to change the world. Theology is a complicated field, there is no doubt about that, but theology is only fully understood when it is experienced by the theologian. God communicates through relationship; that is why Jesus was such a crucial element in God’s plan for humanity. Evangelical Theology has a way of opening the minds and hearts of the most serious seekers of God. It is a challenging structure of approaching theology, but one that at the same time seems the most natural. “Simply to know about it affords ample occasion to join in the praise of God, the God of the covenant, the God who is love itself.” God pulls his creation closer by guiding them through the theological work. This is its purpose, this is His desire.