Evangelical Theology: An Introduction

In these lectures Barth introduces a theology, not that it needs one because it is new; in fact, it is the theology that is most vulnerable.

This theology needs not justify its existence. It is the theology called into existence as a response to what happend in history, especially the event described as the Gospel (euangelion). In that sense it is evangelical. And since the gospel is the power of God through faith in Jesus Christ, to critically verify it there is no other way but to have faith. Therefore, this theology is “faith seeking understanding”.

One must realize that the gospel was first proclaimed, not in human words, but as a human; Jesus of Nazareth; the gospel was not an explanation nor an interpretation of His life, but Himself. Indeed, His witnesses did not proclaim a doctrine, but reported what happened; the very fact that this person Jesus was with them was a history worth recording, an event which no one has ever seen nor heard of, a news that is relevant to the entire humanity regardless of time. What is new in this man Jesus? A great irony — every single (wo)man knows that (s)he cannot escape the judgment of God; even Moses was a sinner; but in this man Jesus was found God’s delight; yet he was hung on the cross; yet again, risen!

In this paradoxical history, event, the man Jesus, we see God’s grace and answer to man’s sin—so Jesus is God’s word; the Word became flesh. He is the conclusion of God’s action presented in the history of Israel—the history of Immanuel. In Jesus is God’s unconditional love; grace which is not based on man’s merit.

Theology is a response to this Logos (word) of God. In other words, evangelical theology comes to existence by the Word; hence it cannot dictate the Word. (Barth says that it is in essence an ”ana-logous” work, mirroring God’s word as clearly as possible.) It must constantly be exposed to the Word, and reformed by the Word. In summary, evangelical theology is, in the words of Barth, a modest, critical, and free theology; but also a happy one; as God was with man in Christ, He is with man in Christ! Christ lives, and His Kingdom here! What a joyful truth; genuine happiness that won’t learn to fade away!

And just as the Word of God proves itself to be the word of God by demonstrating its power by the Holy Spirit, theology called by the Word exists by the Holy Spirit; who dwells among the body of believers. Hence, in this Body is the modest, critical, free and happy theology found; it is part of the reasonable service of the communio sanctorum.

The greatest threat to theology then comes, Barth says, from God himself. The world might praise a certain theological work, but it is God who tests with a consuming fire whether it is truly an acceptable work. But we need not be terrified when we find ourselves in such examination, since the God of Jesus Christ is gracious; we endure in hope.

One must never forget that theology is not about “it” or “something”, but a person; the God who speaks through Jesus Christ, the Living One. Theology is totally dependent on Him; on His word and revelation; on His liberating power through His Spirit. Thus we must pray. Prayer is the essence of theological work.

Finally, to know God is to know the perfect love in the Trinity. Indeed, a believer is baptized, not in, but into the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Hence a true theological work must be a work of love; not to be mistaken with the lust for knowledge; but the agape for Him and the Church.

What Barth points out in this book are things that any student of theology must contemplate at some time; I would recommend this book to any faith seeking understanding.

Two ironies in this book: I found it ironical that Barth asserts strongly that evangelical theology is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Word become flesh, yet Barth himself focuses only on the half of the gospel, and then philosophizes the message. Let me explain.

  1. The gospel is that Jesus died on the cross and has risen! In His death is found our redemption, and with his ascension began the Kingdom—regnum gratiae. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing […] Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32, 33, 36) Barth gives a good introduction on the relation of theology relative to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, but he doesn’t say much relative to the mediatorial kingship of Christ. Put in another way, compared to what he says about the history of Israel, he is rather silent on the history witnessed in Acts. This problem, I think, is not unrelated to the second irony I mention below; namely, converting a historic revelation into a philosophical one.
  2. Barth asserts that Jesus is the Word of God in flesh, yet he himself philosophize this fleshly truth. (This, in the words of Ellul, is to “regard the biblical text or known revelation as points of departure for philosophy, whether by translation into philosophical terms or as references of thought.”) For instance, when Barth discusses prayer he asks ‘how do we know that God will listen to our prayer?’ His answer is that from the gospel we know that God is gracious, thus (based on what “gracious” means) we know that He will listen if we pray “genuinely”—there it is; an abstract notion of grace, without the resurrected Christ who has “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). Our genuine efforts are not enough; Christ cannot be more clearer when He says “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Isn’t this why we are so glad in his ascension? The Way to the Father lives! And in this historic (not philosophical!) truth lies our confidence of our prayer being heard; Christ with flesh and bones is next to the Father (John 20:17), and His Spirit intercedes for us (Romans 8:26).

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