Evangelical Theology – The Community

We’ve almost crossed the fifty page mark in our ‘whirlwind’ tour through Barth’s Evangelical Theology. At this rate, we’ll finish the two-hundred page book around the time I finish the PhD. Nonetheless, we forge ahead. Barth’s chapter on “The Community” raises two significant issues – 1) the role of theology in the Church, and 2) the role tradition plays in the Church and its theology.

Barth suggests that the church exists because it was called into being by the Word, then continued to be called into being by the Word’s witnesses. This call originally came through their preaching, but continues through their writing. And the church today is called to continue to witness to the Word not only through ‘silent’ acts of compassion, but also through continued proclamation. Now one might quibble with how silent compassion really is, but most would agree that there is an important relationship between gospel actions and gospel preaching. Jesus and the early church did both in abundance, and my guess is there was never a question of one taking priority over the other.

But that’s not the issue with which Barth is wrestling. He is more concerned with making clear the role ‘theology’ is meant to play in that. Barth’s main point is that theology is meant to serve the church by providing a guide to its proclamation. He suggests that when the church’s speech is ill informed by theology, “Instead of being helpful, it can be obstructive to God’s cause in the world by an understanding that is partly wrong or wholly wrong, by devious or warped thought, by silly or too subtle speech.” Another way of saying this is that proclamation of the Word inevitably involves making theological claims about the Word, and when a church isn’t theologically self-reflective it comes to bear in its preaching (and I would add, to the life of the community as a whole). Good theology doesn’t guarantee good preaching, but bad theology inevitably leads to bad preaching.

Now it is too easy for one to make lofty claims about what theology is suppose to do and be in the life of the church, and so Barth reminds us that theology is for the church. In his own words…

“Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be only concerned with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community.”

The church is served by theology when careful theological reflection is taken seriously within and for the church. My own sense is that some church cultures view theology with a certain amount of suspicion. Some of the wariness is undoubtedly deserved. In as much as theology is self-absorbed and cares little for the life of church, then the criticism is warranted. However, to simply write off theology because it is overly concerned with ‘right’ thinking and ‘abstract’ concepts is a (theological) decision that doesn’t serve the church very well. The theology of “non-theological” churches could undoubtedly use some revisiting.

In the same way that churches run the temptation of loosing themselves from the fetters of theology, or at least a certain kind of theology, Barth recognizes (or anticipates) a similar mistake with regard to tradition. In fact, given that so much of theology is embedded within tradition, in some ways it is one and the same move. This may be why Barth makes similar statements about the way tradition is meant to function in the thinking and life of the church. The church is meant to ‘trust’ it, ‘respect’ it, ‘learn’ from it (which also assumes it will learn it). By the same token, tradition – like theology – serves the church by informing its theology, preaching, and practice while not lording over it. Hence the statement, “There is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy!”

Now I’m no contemporary-church basher. My beloved home church would be on the ‘cutting edge’ of a host of church-y things. But in as much as the evangelical church in America thinks that it is the first church to get it right since the Bible was written, it is not unlike the adolescent who thinks he/she has nothing to learn from a parent. Some children grow out of that phase, while others carry the adolescent mindset all the way through adulthood. In the States, a society that is in many ways obsessed with youthfulness and adolescent culture, the church’s tendency towards fadishness and style over substance comes across as especially juvenile. Both child and parent are well-served when they attend to the Word that binds them.

10 Replies to “Evangelical Theology – The Community”

  1. What a good thing to ruminate on today. The last sentence was the balance. Something ignored too often times. Thank you for sharing this. Can’t wait for the book.

  2. This is the first one of these posts that I’ve understood any part of – and I like it. 🙂 thank you. It makes me think of how we’re always pushing for people to think about the words they use, not just say empty (or even misleading) phrases in church. I don’t know if that connection makes sense, really, but this was an encouragement to me. Miss having these conversations face to face, friend. Much love.

  3. Excellent post, Taido! As someone who has a thoroughly evangelical Protestant background, I’m sorry to have to confess my own illiteracy concerning Christian history and what Barth calls tradition here. I think he strikes a good balance in admitting that there are darker periods in the community’s history, while still affirming that the community of yesterday is the spring from which the community of today emerges.

    1. Mark, lots of great insights were left untouched. Who is responsible for knowing the ‘tradition’? How much is helpful for the non-professional? Etc… Also, knowing the failings of the past helps us to recognize how we might be repeating similar mistakes today. As always, thanks for reading along.

      1. Taido, you’re right… there’s a lot of valuable nuggets in this chapter. Although I didn’t catch whether he directly answers who is responsible for knowing the ‘tradition’ (does he ever answer anything directly?), he does say that “every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian.” I don’t suppose that he used the word “called” on accident. This seems like a very solemn thing to say (and I think he’s right… I think it can be said about theology that it is not a question of whether one does theology, but whether one does theology well or poorly). If this is true, am I right in saying that every believer is also “called” to know and interact with this tradition?

        Barth begins the chapter by saying that theology has its place “very concretely in the community, not somewhere in empty space.” I take it that to the degree that theology doesn’t in some measure “connect” in a meaningful way with the community of believers that it is trying to serve, it is to that degree that it fails to serve. There’s bound to be some areas of theology that must remain the exclusive domain of “the professionals” (as in any discipline); but if the discovery of the Word and the witnesses is to take place in the community there must be an adequate amount of translation going on for the rank and file. The job of any translator is to build a bridge between a language that is not understood and the one who wishes to understand it. As theology informs the work of the preacher or teacher, hopefully they are building such bridges for the community.

        As for whether knowing the failings of the past helps us to recognize how we might be repeating similar mistakes today, one would hope that is true. However, am I reading the end of the chapter correctly that this is not automatic? He says that if we don’t “pursue” the problems of the past, “repeatedly meditating, considering, and reconsidering” them, that “theology might find the sons of today proving tomorrow to be enthusiastic re-discoverers and perhaps avengers of their grandfathers”? His language here makes me think that guarding against error requires a constant vigilance, for we are no less prone to error than they.

        1. Mark, as always you’ve demonstrated that you have read the text closely! On the issue of who is meant to ‘know’ theology and the tradition, I think he would say there is a sense in which all of us do. However, I do think he places a primary emphasis on its leaders.

          An analogy might help… driving in cars is funny business. Even getting into a car that someone else is driving, requires a certain amount of knowledge. How to open a door. Which door to open. How seatbelts work. But more or less, trust is the main thing required of a passenger. That’s good enough for getting transported in a car. If you see the driver doing something wrong, assuming you know what driving is suppose to look like, you could make a ‘helpful’ suggestion. However, if you don’t anything about driving a car, then it is best to just keep silent and let the driver drive. And still the necessary characteristic for being a faithful rider is trust. Until you take it upon yourself to learn the ins and outs of driving, that is most and best one can do.

          Now the driver can be a good driver or a poor driver, know his surroundings well or not well, know the internal operations of a car or not know. There are all kinds of things one can do to learn to be a ‘master’ driver. If one wants to teach others how to drive, that takes one set of skills. If one wants to teach others to be ‘master’ drivers, then that’s another level of proficiency. So… I’m not sure where all the connections are in the analogy, but I do know that we are all meant to be good riders at times and just ‘trust’ the drivers. If the driver starts taking us to not good places and in a reckless way, it becomes necessary to become familiar with the proper way to drive and our surroundings to be a help in correcting the driving.

          The analogy breaks down in all kinds of ways of course. In the church, I don’t think any of us are called to be just ‘riders’. In a sense, we are all drivers. But some drivers carry more responsibility for getting people places.

          I am an over-confident driver. Most Americans are. That is good in lots of scenarios. It is also presumptuous. I think lots of the same generalizations could be applied to how we approach theology and church stuff. Whew. Longish answer to your first thought. In short, yes we are all called to it. But mostly we are called to receive it from those entrusted with leading us in the rich life of Kingdom living as it has been expressed throughout the history of God’s people. I think the main point is that many ‘moderns’ are suspicious of that history, while failing to recognize that it is this very history that gives us a place to stand (or drive?) as the church today.

          On your second thought about the ‘connecting’ of academic theology and church, I have lots of thoughts. I’m going to try and throw a post together on it sometime in the not so distant future.

          Lastly, I’m not going to answer straight on your question about guarding against error. However, I’ve been thinking though the role of denominationalism. Certainly no guarantee that ‘error’ won’t creep in, but maybe it does it slower? Denominations help congregations stay connected to the past a bit more, but then also tend to be difficult to steer out of trouble when the ship heads that way. Non-denoms move quicker. Quicker into error, and so maybe quicker to correct it? Dunno. Just thinking out loud as this point. LOTS of books have probably been written on the shortcomings of evangelicalism in the US. A non-American friend of mine here is bemused by evangelicalism’s fascination with itself.

          Until next time!

          1. I love the driving analogy! It’s really helpful. I might push a little there though, and (at the risk of mixing the metaphor) say that it’s at least part of the job of the drivers to be teaching the riders how to get around a bit (Eph. 4:13 – “until we all … become mature”). I can’t wait for the follow-up post on the ‘connecting’ of theology and church!

Leave a Reply