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Dienstag, den 29. Juni 2010 um 21:35 Uhr

Book Report on Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction

Referee: Prof. Benedict Kowk
Author:Kan Chan


Evangelical Theology: An Introduction1 comprises four series of lectures by Karl Barth. Despite its title, this book is not exactly an introduction to evangelical doctrines but rather an assertion concerning the functions of the evangelical theology and the life of the theologian. The term evangelical is emphasized to distinguish the object of this theology – the only true God – from all other “theologies” as religions, philosophies, and godless ideologies. Since evangelical is essentially of the Good News, the theology only treats of the God of the Gospel who proclaims Himself in the Bible. Such theology has four distinct characteristics: It is modest for it is subject under God; free because it is given the freedom to relate to God; critical as it is open to His judgment; and happy since it is the response to Immanuel and to His surpassing love and grace.


1. The Place of Theology

Ultimately God sets the PLACE of theology. As “theology” is the logic tied to God, it is “the response to the Word of God” (p. 16) – of which theology is placed to listen, confirm, and announce. He is the Logos become flesh who declares God’s covenant, history, and work with man – theology and all its thoughts and speech must be initiated, guided, measured, and realized by Him. So, theology situates in “the service of the Word of God’s covenant of grace” (p. 20).

Nonetheless, theology’s knowledge of the Word is always second hand thus theology is placed under the authority of the primary “biblical witnesses of the Word” (p. 26). They are the OT prophets who wrote down God’s Word spoken in His history with Israel; and the NT apostles who witnessed the history of salvation of Jesus Christ. Therefore, theology’s place is beneath the Bible, and it must attest to the Word of God by His self-disclosure in the Scriptures.

Theology is also placed in the community of faith wherein all are commissioned to proclaim God’s work and Word in the world. To ensure that their perception, attitude, speech, and testimony remain proper and pure according to His Word, theology serves the community by continually challenging its faith to “seek understanding” (p. 42). But theology must also respect tradition, to learn and make the best of the dogmas, creeds, and confessions of the forefathers.

Human theological assertions, however, are by themselves ineffective – they gain power from the Spirit of the Lord who is “present and active in testifying what the affirmations of theology declare” (p. 51). It only happens when the Spirit freely draws near theology, which in turns must subject under His dominion, admonishment, and illumination. If theology is to be serviceable to the community, it must depend completely on the mercy of the Holy Spirit.

2. Theological Existence

The second series regard the EXISTENCE of the theologian. He is to be filled with wonder – first, by God’s Word, the Gospel of Immanuel who fulfills the covenant between God and man; then by the “wondrous reality of the living God” (p. 72); and lastly, the fact that he is the recipient of His grace and “worthy to be permitted and required to wonder with respect to the wonder of God” (p. 73) compelled the theologian to be astonished at himself as well (p. 71).

The theologian is also summoned to concern. As he exists in the world wherein God’s grace is prepared for the whole human race, their woe and salvation concern him. Similarly, his existence in the Church consumes him with its “quest for truth” and all other minutest problems. Subsequently, the theologian also exists by himself; thus his whole person even his most private life and intimate thoughts concern him as it is under the constant scrutiny by God’s Word.

While a theologian is free to inquire, think, and speak, he must make a total commitment to the unity of the Word and work of the living God. From this unity he gathers knowledge of Jesus – not philosophically or historically but theologically; and by this unity he is directed to speak of Him. Moreover, he is to be pleased in the supremacy of the Gospel and sufficient in God, so he will spread “satisfaction and pleasure throughout the community and world” (p. 95).

Ultimately a theologian exists by his faith – occurs when he encounters God and believes in Him, not just hypothetical knowledge of God or mere assent to certain theological doctrines. Though faith is the “indispensable condition” of theology (p. 100), it should never become its object and theme. A theologian must continue to exercise his faith freely and daily, to be repeatedly overcome by God’s Word and work, and to obey the power of God’s Spirit in his life.

3. The Threat to Theology

The first THREAT to theology is solitude. While its work concerns all men, a theologian often works alone without support. Few understand his demanding theological discipline – the constant quest for truth and exclusive obedience to God’s Word; most oppose his theological questions and answers that prompt their actions of faith. Since isolation is inevitable, instead of becoming bitter, one must endure and bear loneliness with “dignity and cheerfulness” (p. 111).

Another threat includes two forms of doubt: The first springs from the very nature of theological work, when the vital and incessant toil in the quest for truth intimidates men into abandonment. The second arises during the theological task, when the need and meaning of its quest is being questioned – the theologian may be distressed by the world’s power or Christians’ feebleness or losing sight of God in his life – to this doubt one must also endure and bear.

Surprisingly, the most severe threat is the temptation from God. By means of His silence and withdrawal, testing and judgment strike upon theological works in which every thought and speech is exposed and criticized. Theology is subject to temptation for its human pride, mere intellectual treatment of God’s Word, academic work detaching from the real world problems, and achievements that mislead the community. By God’s mercy and grace theology becomes purified thus useful to God, therefore, His loving temptation must simply be endured and borne.

Nevertheless, the threats of theology contain hope from within. God is this hope that theology relies on in midst of His judgment. What gives substance to the theologians’ hope is God’s grace and salvation – Jesus is “the foundation and object of their quest, who makes theology possible and rules and sustains it” (p. 155). As long as one remains in the Lord and keeps his hope in Him, he can boldly undertake theological works and endure and bear all threats.

4. Theological Work

The last series explain what WORK must be done in theology – the most fundamental is prayer. Since theology is summoned by God to respond to His Word and work, only His grace can sustain and endow it with divine self-disclosure and human receptiveness, only His Spirit can achieve “the opening of God for man and the opening of man for God” (p. 169); therefore, theological work only lives by His presence granted through genuine prayer and petition to God.

In theological work, prayer and study are inseparable. Whether it is the discipline of biblical exegesis, Church history, systematic theology, or practical theology (i.e. preaching and teaching), a student of theology or theologian must pursue and perform the definite intellectual task set by God’s work and Word with zeal, perseverance, and industry. Moreover, theological study must be circumspect and attentive to both the Bible and the work of past theologians.

But theological work must be pursued only for the sake of service. Since it is the “attendance on the divine Word” (p. 190), it is commissioned to aid the community, especially in regard to preaching and teaching, to declare God’s Word in an accurate and clear manner. The Church and theological work are mutually responsible – theology must pose the question about truth, and the Church must seek and find the answer by engaging in serious theological work.

In order to be pleasing to God, theological work must be done in love – not the human love or theological Eros that desires knowledge and self-satisfaction; but the divine Agape, the perfect love of Jesus Christ, who offers Himself to man so that in gratitude man gives himself to God. Theological knowledge is good only when it receives and acknowledges His grace, freely offers itself to God, and responds to His love by submitting to His judgment and sovereignty.


Evangelical Theology: An Introduction is an extremely thought-provoking book. Overall, Barth’s theology and arguments are convincing, sound, and well balanced. He did not romanticize theological undertaking as to shy away from exposing the harsh demands and threats to theology or the theologian; neither did he paint theology under the light of absolute despair as to withhold the grace and hope that God promises. Instead, he did an outstanding job on challenging theologians to work and live in a Christ-centered and Christ-dependent manner. Repeatedly he emphasized that theology stands at the same place as the theologian himself – both are under the judgment of God,2 both are justified by grace alone, and both are sustained by His mercy and love. Essentially Barth laid down the most critical concept for the foundation of evangelical theology – there is no theology or theologian without the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, who declared and fulfilled God’s covenant of grace; therefore, He must be the sole source, content, and purpose of theological work, and the theologian must humbly and continually submit to His sovereignty and revelation. Moreover, the author delivered the truth regarding the profound relationship between the life and work of the theologian, that they are by no means disconnected – in his daily life the theologian is to strife for total obedience and dependence, including his theological endeavors, on the living Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. In order to ascertain the purity, integrity, and usefulness of theology, I find the assertions of Barth crucial and necessary. He negates non-Christian “theologians” and contests those Christian ones who treat theological work as mere intellectual undertaking or scholastic enterprise – while their work may have academic value or even merits and acclamation in its field, it can never be pleasing to God. After all, if the living God Himself is not the focus and Lord in “theology,” it becomes an empty “logy” of meaningless words that serves no purpose whatsoever – and this is a message Barth consistently and successfully conveyed to his readers.

Not only Barth did not dilute the demand upon theologians and their work, he also stressed the theological responsibility placed on Christians and their community. Essentially the Church is commissioned to witness God’s Word and work, and this can only be done if it persistently pursues understanding for its faith: “The community and the whole of Christianity are required and called to do such [theological] work” (p. 40); “every Christian … is also called to be a theologian” (p. 40); “a community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community” (p. 41). In other words, this is a wake-up call to all Christians: It is not only the theologian’s or the pastor’s job to study and respond to the Word of God, everyone is responsible for the quest for truth – nobody is exempt from engaging in seeking the answers posed by the theologians, and nobody should shun from practicing his faith according to the truth. Here Barth made an exceptional point regarding the relationship between theology and the Christians, also about the discipline of Christian faith.

For the most part I applaud Barth’s solid interpretation and clear presentation on the concepts of evangelical theology, but there are ideas that are ambiguous or self-contradicting. First, throughout the book theology is described as a science. Although Christians acting out of apologetics would defend our faith against accusations of being non-scientific or illogical, and many Christian scientists did prove that there is no conflict between the Scriptures and scientific findings, still it is somewhat imprudent to adopt the “tradition” (p. 3) of attaching theology with such identity without any detailed explanation. Given the complexity and controversial nature of this matter, even though the statement “theology can be only theologically defined” is valid (p. 49), it is hardly a persuasive argument to justify Barth’s definition of theology as a science – “Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s word – science learning in the school of Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science laboring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word of God” (p. 49). While he may have stated concretely the appropriate norms and criteria of truth regarding this “science,” the actual truth conditions and the measure for the verification of theological statements are still lacking. There is no clarification in scientific terms concerning the theologian’s methodology, hypotheses, laws, logics, and theories, nor is there any model of integrating theology and other sciences. Understandably, due to the limitation and scope of this book, the author could not immerge any deeper on this topic, but he could have directed readers to some external references instead of keeping them dangling. Nonetheless, this conception of Barth is indeed stimulating and does deserve further exploration and development, especially if one wishes to facilitate dialogue between theology and other sciences.

On the same note, Barth’s conviction that theology is a science seems to contradict his declaration regarding its place: “Theology had first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being” (p. 15). Undeniably, it is true that the place of theology can only be assigned by God and unrestricted by any human culture or domain, and it is also accurate that in this respect theology surpasses – or at least differentiates from – all other sciences thus it should not seek affirmation from them; however, following Barth’s line of argument, even with his assertion that theology is “a very special science” (p. 3), one would wonder why he insisted to label it “science” as one among and yet detached from the many “general humanistic studies” (p. 15). He is practically saying – theology is one of the sciences but it is not to be placed among the sciences – which is puzzling.

More importantly, in the same aforementioned statement, the author implied that theology should mind its own business thus refrain from pursuing any mutual understanding or conversation with the other sciences, of which I find it difficult to concede. Regarding the relationship between theology and the world, Barth did admit “indirectly it is also service in the world to which the community is commissioned to preach the Gospel” (p. 194) but he remained non-committal to the question “Is theological work also direct service in the world?” (p. 194). He evaded by saying “the answer can only be given … not by theology, but by those whom theology actually helped or failed to help” (p. 194). Based on the author’s assumption, as theological work is proclaimed within the Church, in some way it may contribute “more or less precise awareness” and “insight” (p. 195) to the need of other sciences. In other words, theology is not to converse with other studies, but its proclamation may benefit them with or without their awareness if they happen to gain insight – this is the most irresolute position that Barth held in his book. Although it is true that theology is destined and placed to serve God and the Christian community, it does not necessarily mean that it has to be totally passive and indifferent to the other sciences and needs. After all, Christians are involved in numerous intellectual fields: Shouldn’t theology give aid to those who try to reconcile their faith and learned science? Should it not also equip them to witness more effectively in their profession? Today Christianity in the hostile environment often faces accusations of being close-minded or outdated, should theology not help clearing up misconceptions? Should it not be more proactive and welcome dialogue with other fields? Certainly theology should not devote a substantial amount of time on this purpose thus neglect its primary duty, but should it not at least have a voice outside its own four walls? Why should it let secular “theologians” become the speakers concerning our faith? Disappointedly, to these questions Barth offered no satisfactory answers.

Nevertheless, reading Evangelical Theology: An Introduction is a rewarding experience. To me, as a theology student, it is an excellent reminder of the meaning and responsibilities of theology that may have previously overlooked, and it also gives a reality check to whether my undertaking of theological study is pleasing to God. One by one I have to carefully reexamine my purpose, motivation, attitude, perception, conduct, and service regarding my theological endeavors. And more importantly, I am compelled to reflect on my faith and life concerning my relationship with God, my desire to understand His Word, my obedience to the Spirit, and my walk with Jesus Christ. While exerting every effort to fulfill the theology course requirements, I proceed with acute awareness as to work diligently but humbly, relying not on my intellectual ability but on God’s grace and mercy, seeking not my own academic achievement but the glory to His Name. To sum up, I thoroughly enjoy Barth’s inspiring writings in this book.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend Evangelical Theology: An Introduction to anyone who is more or less involved with theological work. It would be tremendously beneficial – to theology students, to build a solid foundation for their study and future service; also to preachers, teachers, counselors, and leaders in the Christian community, to serve as a reminder of their calling and responsibility in their ministry. Using Barth’s words, they all need to know and experience that theological work is indeed “modest, free, critical, and happy.”

1 Karl Barth & Grover Foley (trans.), Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), 206 pages.

2 Barth employed the term “temptation” as God’s threat to theology. Although he did express the term as God’s testing and judgment of theological work, the concept that “God tempts” is still awkward. Perhaps he is borrowing the idea that “testing” and “temptation” are originally the same word in the Bible, but in order to avoid confusion, the word “testing” or “judgment” would be a better substitution.

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