Barth: theology concerns every one

The question of the relevance of theology for the general public has occupied the attention of this blog recently. As I was reading through the prefaces to Karl Barth’s Römerbrief, I came across the following statement which I think is apposite:
I have never pretended to be anything else [than a theologian]. The point at issue is the kind of theology which is required. Those who urge us to shake ourselves free from theology and to think—and more particularly to speak and write—only what is immediately intelligible to the general public seem to me to be suffering from a kind of hysteria and to be entirely without discernment. Is it not preferable that those who venture to speak in public, or to write for the public, should first seek a better understanding of the theme they wish to propound? [Leonhard] Ragaz and his friends reply hurriedly that this proceeds from callous theological pride. But this cannot be granted for one moment. Those who are genuinely convinced that the question is at present trivial must be permitted to go their way. Some of us, however, are persuaded that the question, What are we to say? is an important one, particularly when the majority are prepared at any moment to lift up their voices in the street. I do not want readers of this book to be under any illusions. They must expect nothing but theology. If, in spite of this warning, it should stray into the hands of some who are not theologians, I shall be especially pleased. For I am altogether persuaded that the matters of which it treats and the questions which it raises do in fact concern every one. I could not make the book more easily intelligible than the subject itself allows. ... If I be not mistake ... we theologians serve the layman best when we refuse to have him especially in mind, and when we simply live of our own, as every honest labourer must do.
—Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. from sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1968), 4-5.


The Miner said…
This of course is absolutely fine. I don't think everyone has to write for the layman as Barth clearly is not. But Barth doesn't say the layman should read his writing either. He says he'd be happy if they should happen to, but he doesn't expect it. It isn't his priority.

I would go a tad farther and say that Barth's critiques of people encouraging writing for the layman are misplaced. It is not that you should spout whatever pleases people or fail to think it through clearly. Every author should try and understand their subject just as Barth says, but, the author hasn't truly understood their subject if they're incapable of explaining it clearly to a child. It is a higher and more valuable skill to be able to make complicated concepts intelligible to anyone.
D.W. Congdon said…
I added a final line to the quote that I should have included before. Barth says: "If I be not mistake ... we theologians serve the layman best when we refuse to have him especially in mind, and when we simply live of our own, as every honest labourer must do."

So while I agree that those who can communicate to both the intelligentsia and children are the greatest, we should not expect that theologians must have the child in mind. They may not be, and often should not be, called to this task. They need to concern themselves with the subject that lies before them.
Halden said…
And what subject is that, David?

I certainly don't think everyone is cut out to read theology, and theology shouldn't try to make itself into something so simple that anyone can comprehend it.

But it does seem like all theology should be for the "layman" (which sounds like an abstraction to me), or rather for the church, true?
Adam Gonnerman said…
There is a time and a place for communicating deep theological truths to "laypeople," but we do a disservice to both the subject matter and the "layperson" when we try to dumb it down without necessity. If a subject is deep, so be it. Use the right words. Along a similar line, it bothers me to hear people say we should abandon Christian terminology in order to reach people. Last time I went to Starbucks I had to figure out what the names on the menu meant, and I didn't mind. I'll still do business there.
D.W. Congdon said…
All I mean is that if the theologian is called to analyze the post-metaphysical implications of Hegel's trinitarian dialectic for a proper Christology, I would want that theologian to be free to engage that subject matter fully and without constraint. If it becomes necessary later on to carry out the task of "translation" or "interpretation" for a non-theological audience, then someone should carry out this task as well. All I mean is that, as Barth says, the theologian serves the church the best when she engages in theology freely without the layperson in mind -- at least at first.
Halden said…
I firmly agree in the fact that theological language is indispensible. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, the liberal push to "translate" theological language into non-theological concepts makes us wonder if theology is really necessary at all.

But, my question David, is based on what you've said, what is the task of doing theology in your view?

In other words I can certainly imagine a theologian needing to engage Hegel's dialectic, but the question is why is he called to do that? How is that related to the practice of theology? What is its telos? Is theology properly the task of the church or the academy? What theological sense are we to make of the academy itself? (Because that's a question that's never asked!)
of course if the theologian is called to do that, he should.

but your original post on the topic was not about that, but about the "layman", who you think should be reading the books produced. why?

(and can we stop saying "layman"? are lay women not in the ambit of the discussion? and by my understanding, anyhow, Barth was a layman.)
Shane said…
I think the most beautiful and moving thing I think karl barth ever said was when he was asked after one of his lectures at chicago to explain his theology succintly. The response:

"Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so."
WTM said…

Although that story is apocryphal (that is, unrecorded; although efforts at the Barth Center here at PTS has rendered the account plausible; also, it may have been at Union), I would have to agree with you.

Also, by some accounts, the question was: "What is the most profound thing that you have learned in your study of theology?"
D.W. Congdon said…
Surely, Halden, the telos of theology is the proclamation of the gospel. Preaching is where theology begins and ends, as Barth would say. But between that origin and that telos, theology must be free to carry on its proper task without considering those twin poles within which it finds its place. In doing this, I am elevating the responsibility of the pastor/preacher. She must be the kind of person who can translate academic theology into a pastoral context. Not all pastors are capable of doing this, but then again, not all theologians are incapable of speaking directly to the masses.

Thomas: By the way, I have never used the word "layman"; I always say "layperson." And I dislike the term very much anyway, since Barth (and this gets us back to the topic at hand) thinks that every person is a theologian. Now, it's interesting, you seem prone to speak of every person as a layperson.

So we arrive at a fascinating juncture: Are all Christians theologians? Or are all Christians laypeople?

Answering this question might help address the overall debate. I side with Barth and say that all people are theologians. I have made my case for this in one of the previous posts. The point is that every Christian makes a confession of faith, and that confession rests on certain theological propositions. The moment we affirm or disaffirm such statements, we become theologians.
When I say that Barth is a layperson, I mean that only in the ordinary sense: he's not ordained. I understand that this is a point of disagreement between different confessions, but it seems perhaps worth pointing out where my own confessional tradition stands on the point.

There is another sense of "lay" in which it means the "people", inclusively of all the baptized rather than of only the non-ordained baptized; in that sense, of course every baptized Christian is a lay person.

I see no value in deciding which is "right"; they are simply both meanings of a word that has two meanings.

As for whether all Christians are theologians, I have to say again that since Christians include people who are entirely incapable of intellectual thought, or perhaps thought of any kind plausibly recognized as such, I must say, no. Christians include such diverse people as newborn baptized infants, people with late-stage Alzheimer's, anencephalitic people, and a whole variety of other examples. It is a sign of the intellectualization of Christianity which is endemic within Protestantism that it could even arise as a question.

Once we say that some Christians are called to be theologians and some are not, we can get somewhere. As long as we are in the fantasy land in which we pretend that every Christian is able to, for example, speak a language or remember their name, we are not going to be able to get far.

(Or, instead, perhaps one could insist that all Christians are called to be theologians, and those poor unfortunate souls I refer to are not really Christians. Perhaps this is the sad upshot of the exclusion of them from baptism which Barth called for.)
D.W. Congdon said…
I think you miss the point. The fact that there are some who are incapable of forming theological thought (of critical thinking in general) is really the exception which proves the rule. The rule is that as we confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Lord, we become theologians -- not "academic theologians," mind you, but theologians nonetheless. To reduce theology to the academy only reinforces the problem of modernity.

That said, I strongly affirm the need to separate callings. But I am not speaking of a specific call to theology. I am speaking rather the general fact that Christians are all theologians. If there are those who cannot mentally understand the creeds of the church, this is the exception, the Grenzfall. The general rule, though, is that all confessing believers are responsible for their beliefs.
"the exception that proves the rule" is not a theological or even a rational principle, and is based upon a misunderstanding of the meaning of "prove". in it's origin, that little maxim means "it is the exception which tests the rule"; and "exception" does not mean "the case where the rule doesn't work"; it means "the unusual and unnormal case". the point is, in fact, the exact opposite of the way you wish it to be (and the way most people quote the maxim). the point is that rules should not be measured by whether they hold up in the normal case, the typical case, but by whether they hold up in the exceptional case.

so yes, the exception proves the rule: the exception is the case of those who are incapable of theological thought, and this exceptional case puts so much strain on the "everyone ought to be a theologian" rule, that the rule must collapse.

you might substitute a different rule: everyone must do as much theology as they are capable of. but clearly that is not right.

of course, every "confessing believer" is responsible for their beliefs, and every acting believer is responsible for their actions. but the standard of right action is conformity with the moral law (or however you want to cash it out); the standard for right belief is conformity with the truth. there are many ways of having true beliefs, and the activity we call "theology" is only one such way of coming to true belief, and not even a particularly good one, since it most usually seems to be about the supporting of beliefs already reached by other means.

the "everyone must be a theologian" mantra is really rather like "everyone must understand the doctrine of justification by faith alone, or they don't really have faith at all" one hears from many Lutherans. i haven't got a clue what "everyone" is supposed to mean in sentences like that.

i'm not the one who reduces theology to the academy; remember, i think that academic theologians are the worst of models.

i think that theology is a particular vocation; and while there is a sense in which "everyone" "should" know what they believe, there is also a sense in which everyone should be praying.

and you know, i'm going to plant my flag on the latter. if it is lamentable that Barth is not as well known, surely i can lament even more strongly the massive, nay, near total ignorance of liturgics among the non-catholic churches.
D.W. Congdon said…
Thomas: I think you really miss the point. Let me illustrate this. You write:

the "everyone must be a theologian" mantra is really rather like "everyone must understand the doctrine of justification by faith alone, or they don't really have faith at all" one hears from many Lutherans.


i think that theology is a particular vocation; and while there is a sense in which "everyone" "should" know what they believe, there is also a sense in which everyone should be praying.

I see now that you never understood what I or Barth mean by that phrase. The former is an entirely inappropriate parallel, as if theology = dogmatic theology. And the latter is just laughable, as if one could possible divorce theology from prayer -- as if prayer is just another optional add-on to the definition of "Christian."

To say "everyone is [not "must be" as you wrongly put it] a theologian" is to say that "every person takes a stand on the identity of Jesus." Every person in the church is a theologian simply by virtue of the confession of Jesus as Lord.

If it helps, think of this as a very Protestant (not modern academic) statement. The Reformers vehemently rejected the common Catholic practice in which the average Catholic simply believed whatever the church believed. The true layperson is one who simply accepts whatever the church teaching office proclaims. The Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers is at the very same time an affirmation that all are theologians, i.e., all know or at least ought to know what it means to confess that Christ is Lord. To put it in the broadest terms, every person in the church ought to care about or have a stake in what the church believes about the gospel.

Theology is not "only one such way of coming to true belief." This is again to limit theology to the academic discourse of theology. You and I do not disagree on the importance of confessing something concerning the gospel. But you simply have what I consider a very unhealthy and overly negative reaction to the term "theology." This whole conversation is an attempt on my part to free you from that negative reaction. And correspondingly I want to see you embrace the importance of investigating the truth within the church. That is, to say all Christians are theologians is to say that they are not dumb robots but real people who have a stake in what we think about God. Theology matters to them, even if they do not realize it. Thus, when we recognize that all Christians are theologians -- i.e., that to say "Christian" is to also say "theologian" (in some form) -- I believe the churches will be more compelled to educate more conscientiously and demonstrate more concern with what we are confessing when we say "We believe..."

All that said, I wholeheartedly agree with you that there is a lamentable ignorance of liturgics among non-catholic churches. This pains me greatly. Thus, in a few weeks, I am organizing and teaching a seminar on liturgy and worship for our church. I believe this is theology, and any attempt to convince me that it is anything otherwise will fall on deaf ears. Any cleavage between theology and liturgics simply will not stand, in my opinion. Call my definition of "theology" too broad, but I fail to see how any of this does not fall in some way under the "study of God."
i have been, i think, vastly too careless in this thread in using "theology" and "dogmatics" and "academic theology"; terms that have some synonymous sense, but also as you chide me for, not actually being synonyms. and for that i'm sorry; i was relying on context to convey more than i had any right too.

so adopting your careful terminology, which actually i am entirely comfortable with and use (though again, without the insistence that "every Christian must take a stand on Jesus", for the reasons already said; i, at least, am unwilling to unchurch the infants, and will continue to insist on that), what follows?

every Christian with the ability must be concerned, to some extent, with theology. now, having carefully distinguished theology from dogmatics, why are we supposed to be bothered that they seem unconcerned with dogmatics? their lack of concern with Barth and engagement with what exercises him cannot be read back as a refusal to take theology seriously unless we start again identifying "theology" with "dogmatics", which you have (rightly, and carefully) said can't be done.

i am happy to regard liturgy as theology, by the way; anglicans tend to want to say that the liturgy is, in fact, "primary theology", and perhaps even the norm and standard of belief. it was just such a disconnect between liturgy and dogmatics which was central in the Episcopal Church's near condemnation of COCU.

so the distinction is not (if i speak without the carelessness i had before) between liturgics and theology, but between liturgics and dogmatics. liturgics has its own principles, and is not the servant of dogmatics.

(when one hears the phrase "practical theology", of which liturgics is a branch, my skin crawls; this could mean "the kind of theology which is practical" [but is not dogmatics also practical?] or it could mean "the application in practice of that which is theoretical in dogmatics" [which makes dogmatics the master of that which is outside its competence].)

anyhow, this thread has been chugging along for a long time, and i feel a strange weariness; not that the topic has ceased to be interested, but that we have drifted around so much that i'm having trouble keeping track of it.
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks, Thomas, for the clarifications. I agree that the discussion has come to a close. Perhaps one final question to ponder:

If we agree that theology (in its broadest sense) should concern everyone, in what capacity or to what extent should people be concerned with Barth or other dogmaticians?

This is a tough question. All I can say is that more Christians should at least care about the work such theologians have done and are doing -- which is not to say that Christians need to care about the content of the work itself, only that such work is being done. I think if the questions that theology raises (e.g., What is the significance of Jesus Christ? What is salvation and how do we receive it? What is the Trinity?) become important to more people, then the present debates over these issues will become more important to people.

I do not really care whether every person in the church is familiar with Barth or whoever. I just want theology to be seen as central to the Christian faith, not as a marginal academic interest that has no traction for the everyday believer. If that leads to a person reading Barth, wonderful; if that results in people having a more critical, conscientious, and robust faith, even better.