Takeaway: We really need to read theologians for themselves and not allow others to define them for us. Barth was not a US Evangelical, but he was clearly a Christian that took his Christianity seriously and did much for the church as a whole.
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Let me start by saying this is my first real introduction to Barth. I know he was talked about briefly in my college Systematic Theology class. I do not remember discussing him at all in grad school. And most of what I know about him prior to this is from biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am attempting to rectify that hole in my theological background and this was recommended as an introduction.
This book is based on a series of lectures (originally in German). Barth then delivered these lectures later (or parts of them) in the US, based on an edited English translation of the book. The introduction to the book is to the English edition and was written by Barth primarily about coming to the US to give the lectures. Because I have associated Barth with Bonhoeffer it is hard to remember that Barth lived past World War II. But these lectures were given in the US in 1962 and Barth lived another six years after that.
These lectures were written at the end of a career and are intended to summarize what it means to be a Christian and Theologian. He has a different meaning of Evangelical than the common modern US word. For Barth, Evangelical is a theological position that is not bound to politics or even Protestantism. The lectures are divided into four main sections. Basically they are: where we do theology (the church, the community, scripture and the Spirit), theological existence (the hardest to define, but it is about wonder, faith and commitment), threats to theology (solitude, doubt, temptation, hope) and the work of theology (prayer, study, service, and love). This is not a systematic theology, but directions about how to be a theologian.
Honestly, I think I missed far more than I got. This is a book I need to read again, not necessarily because it is so good (although I think it might be) but because it is so dense I need a second run. So here are some things I did get out of it.
First, for Barth Evangelical Theology starts as being modest. I am all about modest theology and I appreciate that he started there.
Second, one of the things that makes this book hard to read is that it was originally spoken in German, translated into English, but quotes a ton of phrases in Latin and Greek (not all of them translated). Honestly, one of the biggest things I got out of this is how weak our ability to talk about God is when we only have one language. A short section of this book was discussing the problems of using one language or another because there was not a good word in English or German or Latin or Greek, etc to talk about that aspect of theology.
Third, because of my inadequate preparation for reading Barth, I have him pegged as a Liberal Theologian of the early 20th century in my mind. I knew he wasn’t going in. But that is still how I have him pegged. Most people reading this book without preconception would believe him to be an orthodox giant of the faith. I know there are some that complain about his view of scripture. But in context of the rest of this theology he really does value scripture. He just does not think we should value scripture above Jesus Christ.
Fourth, I do think this is a book that I need to read again and struggle through because he is concerned with what it means to really follow Christ. I know I am not going to agree on everything. But in the end, Barth is far more concerned about the struggle to follow Christ than he is about a particular doctrine. I think it is interesting that he particularly talks about how the tendency among theologians is to reject those that came before us, especially the immediate generation. But he challenged the reader to really struggle through the wisdom of their elders because that is how we get the gospel.
Finally, I think it interesting how he cordons off theology from the rest of the sciences. It is not a new view to me, but presented in different way. He suggests that while we can use other sciences to serve theology (history, textual criticism, linguistics, etc.), theology is about God. God cannot be studied through human sciences so we always have to be aware of the limitations of using human sciences to talk about God. His sections on the Holy Spirit and Prayer make it clear to me his devotion. I still have a lot to learn about Barth but I found this relatively short book very helpful.
I listened to this book, which limits the ability to go back and read, but keeps me moving forward. I will find it in print later to read again.