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Karl Barth, Friend in the Spiritual Disciplines

February 11, 2009

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Karl Barth’s insight into the spiritual disciplines of the theologian is due to his application of his own theology.  They way we think about God will influence how we practice the spiritual disciplines.  Barth does not define a good theologian by the criteria which some men might great, such as prestigious degrees, published academic articles and dissertations, world travel, or speaking engagements.  Rather, a great theologian is one whose spiritual disciplines consist of things like prayer, study, service, and love.

Barth’s theological emphasis on the sovereignty of God requires us to approach God with a servant’s mentality.  As a servant, the theologian does not forget his place in relation to his master.  Evangelical scholarship endangers itself when it seeks to gain respect and acceptance in the eyes of the world.  Evangelical theologians and ethicists may be tempted to see themselves primarily as philanthropists and servants of mankind.  While it is true that an evangelical ought to be a servant of man, he can only do so as a servant of God first.

An evangelical seeking acceptance of the world may be tempted to downplay doctrines that could be considered offensive, such as man’s sin, God’s sovereignty and justice, and the sacrificial death of Jesus.  But a theological servant of God must take his orders from God.  Whatever God says must be taken as non-negotiable truth.  Even if evangelicals disagree with how Barth treats certain doctrines like the inerrancy of Scripture, they should agree with him that the servant mentality is the proper method of approaching God.

As a servant of God above all, the theologian must fervently practice the proper theological disciplines if he hopes to be fruitful in his theological labor.  Prayer is the essential discipline characteristic of a servant, since prayer is essentially self-abasement by which we must rise up to entreat upon God’s will.  Prayer is also recognition that theological work can be undertaken and accomplished only among great distress.  Without the distress of the possibility of judgment and death there is no grace or life to be had for theology.  The totality of theology can only be performed through the act of prayer and Barth is a fine reminder that no evangelical can neglect its importance.

The other spiritual disciplines Barth challenges us to cultivate are study, service, and love.  For Barth, study is of more spiritual value than the attainment of a degree.  Study is the theologian’s true ambition, not the attainment of a degree.  Prayer and study need each other since prayer would be blind without study and study would be empty without prayer.  Barth’s integrated view of prayer and study is a fine remedy to evangelical tendencies to emphasize one of the these disciplines at the expense of the other.  Pietism emphasizes prayer at the expense of study, and academics all too often emphasize study at the expense of prayer.

Barth reminds evangelicals that they must have patience and humility in theological investigation since all things theological are often both more complicated and simple than one might think.  Undergirding all our spiritual disciplines should be an attitude of gracious service.  And with the promise that the perfect love of heaven is spread out before him, the evangelical theologian may practice spiritual discipline without frustration.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 11, 2009 10:15 pm

    Man, it seems I’m on a Karl Barth kick!

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