What must a theologian say?

I've been (re-)reading pieces of Barth's 1930s works, the ethical stuff concerning the Kirchenkampf and National Socialism. What I had read, I didn't get the first time through, I think because I hadn't had a reason. Part of which now comes from hearing lectures on Barth's political ethics at AAR, and part from discussing interpretation in the Theology and Apocalyptic group. Speaking as though it were not, or however Barth puts it. With Ben Myers and a few others, we popped out the connection between the Titanic sermon and Theologische Existenz heute!, the idea that the job of the theologian is always to preach the gospel, certainly with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, but to preach the gospel and not to proclaim the situation. (Much less to declaim the situation!) The feeling was that this was not quietism, not a game of "pretend nothing is going on," but that it was an active means of addressing the situation by "doing your job." And that's stuck with me for three weeks now, as to how that works -- because my church could use a bit of that!

What must a theologian say, to remain properly existentially situated in her job as a theologian? What can a theologian say, and still do that job? Barth is never proud of us for "doing the impossible," especially when so much of our call from God is possible precisely because it constitutes our existence. Doing what is impossible for us, but possible for God, is one thing; doing what is impossible for us now that we are those God calls, is quite another. Preaching is the former; all manner of sin speaks through the latter.

The "German Christians" voided their theological existence by insisting on a bishop that matched the popular ideal of the Fuehrerprinzip -- or so Barth characterizes the rise of Ludwig Mueller, and the debates over the choice of anyone for the position. The state had a leader, and the church wanted one, too. A real, theological Bishop who could speak for the church, whether they wanted one to align with the state, or to speak out against it. I'm reminded of Jack Preus' (in)famous comment, much as I was reminded when Paull Spring insisted more recently on his own authority as a normative Biblical interpreter -- who really has to be in charge here? And why do we wind up thinking of church leadership like state leadership? (How could we do otherwise, as culturally conditioned by our age?)

In Romans, Paul rhetorically opposed Christ as princeps to the popular model of the Emperor as princeps -- the model of human action, the archon, the first Man. And as with the Kaiserprinzip, so with the Fuehrerprinzip: Barth speaks of One who must be seen as our Leader, framing the active leadership of Christ in the same evental language of the propaganda in which popular leaders emerge from the situation to take charge. But this is 1933, and Barth will not condemn the man or the office of Reichsbischof, much as he believes the decision to be theologically misguided, and whatever his personal misgivings about the profound influence of the Chancellor -- good may still come from the church if it understands its task. TEh! isn't about the form of government, or that the role of Bishop (anti-Catholic polemics aside) is inherently bad, but about thinking theologically about what we do. It was not too late in June 1933, whatever the political machinations of the state, and whatever the form of the life of the church as an institution, for men who belonged to God to act like it.

There is, as Barth says, never any second or third thing next to the gospel. Remarkable affinities with tawḥīd. Our Shahada, if we permitted ourselves to think of submission to God in compatible ways, would insist on Christ because of God, on the gospel because of Christ, because there is nothing next to God. However I might shy from the militarism of such a theme, as both we and our brothers have used it upon others by force (no matter what the words), the inward direction of its truth, that there is no god but God for us, that we have been saved by none but God's messiah, and that we have no business proclaiming anything but the message of that One, is what keeps us from idolatry. It is profoundly important, especially when using "baptized" language, church words, to be careful what exactly we are proclaiming. And whom.

And yet I'm always tempted to make personal commentary on situations (I and not the Lord), to bound off a section of life that belongs to me and say things I'd have to repudiate professionally. Or say things I then have to uphold professionally, at the expense of my theological existence. The notion that prophesis applies to my personal words, to my opinion (since I am a called leader in the church, after all), is one of the most pernicious errors in the church today, and in my own soul, too. "Speaking truth to power." God so help us, white boys just have no place doing it. We are power. We wind up speaking ourselves. We rarely wind up proclaiming the gospel -- we more often wind up doing the wrong sort of impossible thing. Perhaps "speaking the truth in love" is a better model. But the truth can't just be any old thing, and unpopularity of message is no guarantor. It must be a word from God. It must be the Word of God.

This is the danger in talking about the situation -- that we talk about it as sovereign, as though the gospel were not. That we begin to do our jobs by having to ask what the gospel has to say to this situation, with which we are far more familiar. Which is still a better approach than simply to talk about the situation as though we knew already. And yet Barth points us to another approach -- if we speak the gospel, and invest ourselves in knowing it first, we will speak it in all situations. There is an element of aikido in this, of not using the word of God as a tool, but of being in the Word of God as we approach the world and the world approaches us. It is not an attacking way. It responds to the force it receives, ideally without harm to either participant. We don't usually look at Barth this way, especially not since the final moments of many of his personal conflicts with others are so public. Brunner, for example. But the letters reveal a man who would far rather agree with you in public, and discuss with you in private. TEh! is the writing of a man who would be bounced from Bonn for taking exception to a loyalty oath only 16 months later. It should not be read as tolerating the rise of National Socialism, and the Hitler regime, but it should also be understood for its unwillingness to attack means by which God may yet act in the church. That many things change in five years' time, pushes him to say other things in 1938 and beyond.

I find it odd that from this end of time we judge him as having been quiescent about the evil around him, but if I should be judged as "soft" on sin for the sake of retaining the freedom to preach the gospel, I'd take it. (Not that I'm there yet, by any means!) Full-strength gospel opposes all that needs to be opposed.


  1. I'm sorry, I'm not taking anonymous comments on Nazis that have no grounding in the development of the problem in German history, especially the Weimar Republic between the wars. I respect Godwin's law, and I invite others to do the same. Please consider that the title and topic refer to how a theologian is obliged to address developing situations, and I intentionally avoided post-facto condemnations because they're cheap. Thank you!


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