A blog I read recently recommended reading Barth’s Evangelical Theology as a good introduction to his overall thought. It was written in his later life, after he’d finished the Dogmatics, and it’s only 250 pages, which means it is (should be) a mature distillation of his most cherished beliefs. I’m only about a third of the way through but his chapter on theology in community knocked my socks off. I’ll give you some snippets then try and explain why I think it matters:
“The question to be unceasingly posed for the community and for all its members is whether the community is a true witness” (in other words, if you’re serious about witness, you also have to be serious about being a true witness – i.e. getting your theology straight)
Further “Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community.” (so if you want to be a true witness you need to be engaged in theology – you can’t just leave it to the pros or dismiss it as irrelevant in the “I just want to preach the Bible” sort of way)
“Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community.” (so theology doesn’t belong in the academy only – it must serve the church in being a witness – from the community for the community. Without robust theology the community becomes a clock telling the wrong time (to varying degree)).
And finally theology needs to have roots: “in order to serve the community of today, theology itself must be rooted in the community of yesterday . . . fundamental trust instead of mistrust will be the initial attitude of theology toward the tradition . . .The dogmas, creeds, and confessions of the community of the documents of its resistance and at the same time, of its repenting return to its origins. They are the professions of its faith, formulated in opposition to all sorts of unbelief, superstition, and error.” (so we need to invest some time in learning of theology past and present if we’re to serve today’s community).
So why does all this matter? Of course you don’t have to go to theological college for 3-4 years – you might be an extraordinarily gifted learner who can sit in a cupboard and read all the great works by yourself with no help. But if Barth’s right community is important – learning in community to serve community keeps the focus outward. And I realise not everybody is a reader at all. Some people serve in fantastic ways without formal training. But it seems to me they are exceptional, not normal.
For most of us, if we’re serious about witness we need to be serious about being a true witness, which means being serious about theology. And if we’re serious about the health of churches (what Barth calls community) we need to be serious about theology. And if you want to be serious about theology you ought to be serious about a good training, in all the various disciplines. I occasionally hear people talk about how theological study is unnecessary – “I’m just a Bible preacher; I just preach the word.” That sounds pious, but I think it’s misguided, and is in danger of arrogance. I think it presumes that the much wider community past and present doesn’t have much to teach us, and we’re more than capable of getting along fine on our own. I’m with Barth on this one. If you love the saints, and you love the lost, then you have to be serious about true witness, which means in turn you need to get serious about theology.