Most particularly for me as a Christian, Jesus’s costly love, death, and resurrection had become not just something I believed and filed away, but a hope that sustained me all day. I pray this prayer daily. Occasionally it electrifies, but ultimately it always calms:
And as I lay down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in the joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising, because Jesus Christ lay down in death for me, and rose for my justification.
As this spiritual reality grows, what are the effects on how I live? One of the most difficult results to explain is what happened to my joys and fears. Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world—the more we grounded our comfort and security in it—the less we were able to enjoy it.
Among Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions, his ninth was this: “Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.”
The modern age has revolutionized our thinking about death, mostly by keeping us from thinking much about it at all. Timothy Keller’s essay, which, as the title suggests, is firstly about his faith while also being about his death, cedes as much. Keller, a pastor for many years, confesses that he too, at least in part, had been taken in by the prevalent assumption that we’ll somehow get out of life alive.
Keller has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The counsel and comfort he had offered to parishioners through the years was suddenly up for a fresh examination. At 70, Keller looked ahead to many more years of life. His diagnosis revealed that death was nearer than assumed.
His essay is worth reading in full. His fullest wisdom, solidified through his experience of his confrontation with death, is to live as a heavenly minded person, not as a way of escapism from this world, but as a means of entering into gratitude for this world and everything God has accomplished and will accomplish through his glorious work of redemption, initiated, enacted, and one day fully realized in the already and even yet coming kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Philosopher Susan Stebbing has something important to say to us about thinking clearly. Peter West, writing for Aeon, pass along this crucial insight of Stebbing:
What does thinking clearly involve? One important step, Stebbing argues, is to train ourselves out of bad habits of thinking. For example, she describes what she calls ‘potted thinking’. This is oversimplifying ideas using crude characterizations or slogans. While slogans aren’t always a bad thing, Stebbing thinks that they have a tendency to oversimplify more nuanced or sophisticated views and to hide the intricacies of an idea behind a catchy phrase. . . .
To the contemporary reader, this metaphor is perhaps a little dated, with her talk of ‘potted thinking’, because Stebbing is drawing a comparison with potted meat: a vacuum-packed product such as Spam that you might find in a wartime ration pack. She is careful to explain that we should always stop and examine the metaphors we see being used in public discourse. (As she puts it: ‘Do not accept the metaphor too hastily’!) With that in mind, she explains the metaphor:
Potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted. Also, it must have originally been made from fresh meat, and must not be allowed to grow stale. Similarly, a potted belief is convenient; it can be stated briefly, sometimes also in a snappy manner likely to attract attention.
Her point is that potted thinking takes something that once had high ‘nutritive value’ and packages it in a way that’s easier to sell but harder to find any genuine nourishment in. The worst type of potted thinking, according to Stebbing, is when we grow into the habit of ‘using words repeated parrot-fashion’ – put another way, when we start talking in slogans that have no thought or consideration behind them at all.
I thought of our preaching, often characterized by sound bites and sloganeering, catchy phrases and displays of cleverness, perhaps a distillation of something true, but processed nonetheless.
The New Testament speaks of the difference between solid food and milk. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12, in the same passage, contains this rebuke: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”
1 Peter 2:2-3 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”
The challenge in preaching is to offer the Word of God in a helpful way, a way that fosters maturity and invites growth, that aids each person in thinking clearly about the gospel for themselves.
We want people to receive the full nutritional value that comes via knowledge of the truth, not a potted theological substitute.
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian’s task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”
I like this idea. But I am among those who believe that the work of theology is first a work of prayer and second a task of service. Theologians do not firstly serve the academy, though they are found there in official capacities, but rather theologians dedicate themselves to a discipline of inquiry that is intended for service to the Lord and, by extension, to the people of God, the church.
The Anabaptist tradition has also shaped my thinking. John D. Roth says it well: “Anabaptist Christians embrace their political responsibilities – not primarily as citizens, or as representatives of political parties, or as a lobby group shouting to be heard, but as ambassadors of the Prince of Peace who came as a servant, welcomed children and foreigners into his circle, and taught us to love our enemies.”
This perspective can and has led to separatism. That’s why I’m cautious toward the Anabaptist tradition. But I find it compelling because it takes the kingdom of God seriously. Anabaptists are also wary of worldly centers of power. Roth writes:
The most powerful seduction of political engagement, particularly in democracies, is the illusion that true power is in Washington or Ottawa or Asunción or Tehran. Yet Christians believe that history is carried forward by the church, not the state. How would you see the world differently if your primary source of global news came from church leaders around the world or from Christian relief and service workers in other countries rather than from Fox, CNN, or the echo chambers of social media?
That’s a powerful question.
Anyway, people ask me from time to time how Christians think about politics. My answer: “Lots of ways.” Familiarity with various perspectives helps us remain humble, clarifies the perspective best defining our viewpoint, and enables to better understand what we expect from the church and the surrounding political culture. Knowing the perspectives helps us better understand what we champion, why, and how as a Christian, what our goals are, and where the dangers lie.
I’ll return to Rick Berry. He writes:
Our political ideologies are the product of people who simultaneously reflect and distort God’s glory—and no creation is greater than the people who created it. Our goal in the public square therefore should not be merely to champion our political tribes, because that would mean working to empower their sin as much as it would mean empowering their glory. Instead, we should seek to witness to our political tribes, even critiquing our own groups when necessary, and we often must do that by contrasting ourselves against them.
Stated differently, even if we do develop a sound and well grounded approach to politics as Christians, we should never turn our particular viewpoint into an idol, and we must never lose our prophetic voice.
Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.
Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.
Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.
How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”
Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.
In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:
I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.
Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.
Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.
I just happen to disagree.
I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.
But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.
Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.
Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.
Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.
People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.
They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.
Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.
A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.
Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.
How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.
Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.
In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.
In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.
Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.
In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance. At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.” It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition. (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)
More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17. On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.” But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.
Ortlund features several quotes from Augustine’s writings that are too good not to share.
From Sermon 68.5:
Observe the beauty of the world, and praise the plan of the creator. Observe what he made, love the one who made it. Hold on to this maxim above all: love the one who made it, because he also made you, his lover, in his own image.
Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: In the Beginning you made heaven and earth. Moses wrote these words…If he were here, I would lay hold of him and in your name I would beg and beseech him to explain those words to me. I would be all ears to catch the sounds that fell from his lips.
From Sermon 126.6:
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God has made me!”
Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky, and earth, and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light; of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest size are often the most wonderful–the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales? Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at it in storm, and experience the soothing complacency which inspires, by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked? What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger, and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural appliances are there for preserving and restoring health! How grateful is the alternation of day and night! how pleasant the breezes that cool the air! how abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by trees and animals! Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy?
Ortlund states, “for Augustine, the most important aspect of the doctrine of creation is not its timing or the exact mechanics of how God does it, but rather the more basic ontological distinction it implies: that there are two kinds of reality; that the One is the source and cause of the other; and that the lesser exists in radical dependence upon the greater.” Ortlund adds, “There is not a single area of theology that is unaffected by meditation on the implications of such a vision, and it is unfortunate if we pass by such considerations too quickly in our haste to determine the age of the universe” (p. 66).
Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. We are creatures; God is the creator. This is the foundation for our inquiry, and our wonderment.
Following extended conversations with and consultation of seminary faculty, alumni and friends, Dean Todd D. Still, Ph.D., announced today, with strong support from university administration, the formation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. In conjunction, he announced that Dr. William J. Abraham, a theologian, philosopher, author and minister, will serve as the founding director of this strategic initiative.
In this role, Abraham will ensure that students attending Truett from Wesleyan traditions are nurtured and networked for the ministries into which they are being called. Additionally, Abraham, who will regularly teach courses at Truett pertaining to Wesleyan thought and practice, will collaborate with individuals, congregations and organizations in the Wesleyan tradition in the recruiting, training and placing of students and in supporting and educating ministers who are already engaged in gospel service.
“From its inception in 1994, Baylor’s Truett Seminary — an orthodox, evangelical school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a major research university — has been blessed to train ministerial students primarily, though not exclusively, from baptistic congregations,” said Still, The Charles J. and Eleanor McLerran Delancey Dean and The William M. Hinson Professor of Christian Scriptures. “In recent years, however, Wesleyan students and churches have begun to turn increasingly to Truett as a desirable destination location for theological education. We have, in turn, warmly welcomed these Christian friends into our seminary community, which exists to train God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. The establishment of The Wesley House of Studies at Baylor’s Truett Seminary strengthens further this ongoing practice and places Truett on a trajectory to become an increasingly multidenominational school while holding steadfast and true to its doctrinal and ecclesial commitments.”
A gifted teacher, sought-after lecturer, prolific author and ordained elder in the Methodist Church, Abraham holds degrees from The Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland (BA); Asbury Theological Seminary (M.Div.); and Oxford University, Regent’s Park College (D.Phil.), and has taught at Seattle Pacific University, Harvard Divinity School and Southern Methodist University.
“We are on the cusp of a new day for the future of the Wesleyan network of families across the world,” Abraham said regarding the creation of The Wesley House of Studies at Truett Seminary and his appointment to serve as its founding director. “In order to fulfill the promise in store for us, we urgently need fresh ways of providing the spiritual, practical and intellectual resources that are essential for the work up ahead.
“Baylor University is a world-class institution, and the creation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is a landmark development,” he said. “I can think of no better place to be home to a vibrant Wesley House. I am thrilled to play my part in making it a stellar center of excellence that the Holy Spirit can use for reform, renewal and awakening on a global scale.”
I know I have Methodist friends out there who are discerning a call to theological education. There’s a place for you at Truett. As a bonus, I’ll get to see you, too.
Not everyone is called to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I’ve long contended that the local church is the center of theological education. Everyone can get serious there. I think you can learn more about ministers from the churches they’ve been part of than you can from their educational pedigree.
Nonetheless, institutions are important, and it does make a difference if someone has been trained at a reputable school. Two or three years of intensive theological study helps, and it is true that local churches can be limited in terms of depth, scope, and concentration of study made available. You can learn a great deal in the local church, but it helps when other avenues for learning are available.
Throughout the years I’ve come to know many people who have been well trained in their local church and are excellent leaders. You may be one of those friends, someone whom I consider a saint, a co-laborer in the good work of God’s kingdom. You might not be, too. This website is free and open to the public! You might be someone who found this post with a Google search. Glad to connect! But there’s another possibility (please read the following while imagining me with a wink and a smile): we may only be acquaintances, or someone I’ve been praying for for a long time.
What I’ve learned through experience is that there are those I know who could benefit from further training. We could do a lot in the church, but we couldn’t do it all. With the help of a designated course of study, these leaders would be helped to grow in biblical and theological knowledge, gain some outside perspective, learn pastoral ministry skills, and be better equipped to serve in their local contexts. More education would complement and strengthen what has been and is being received in the local church, and thus, by helping the individual grow, the local church would become stronger.
One of the cool things I learned after joining the staff of Truett Seminary is that we provide a form of online theological education. Truett’s Online Certificate Program is for bi-vocational ministers, congregants who serve as lay-ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers, and other ministry volunteers. The online courses are complemented with a few opportunities each year to receive in-person instruction during short on-campus seminars. David Tate directs the program. He’s great. And they have great staff who help to teach and facilitate these courses.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s me!”, what are you waiting for? Check it out!
Another online option I’m familiar with is the Tony Evans Training Center. I have done curriculum development work for Urban Alternative, and while the TETC isn’t a seminary institution, it does provide opportunities for learning, growth, and online community, with a strong emphasis on the study of Scripture.
Other institutions offer online instruction as well, but these are the ones I know. If you are interested in broadening your biblical and theological knowledge, make a choice and pick your resources, dedicate yourself to the task, and get to work. By God’s grace, the church is strengthened when her servants are in pursuit of a deep, passionate, thoughtful, and active faith. Take the next step.
The astonishment of the individual carries with it the fact that no one can become and remain a theologian unless he is compelled again and again to be astonished at himself. Last but not least, he must become for himself an enigma and a mystery. (Note bene: the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.) After all, who am I to be a theologian? It does not matter whether I am the best child of the best parents, perhaps having known, like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15), about the Holy Scriptures from the very time I began to think. It does not matter whether I have the cleverest mind or the most upright heart or the very best of intentions. Who am I to have put such trust in myself as to devote myself even remotely to the task of theology? Who am I to co-operate in this subject, at least potentially and perhaps quite actively, as a minor researcher, thinker, or teacher? Who am I to take up the quest for truth in the service and in the sense of the community, and to take pains to complete this quest? I have put such trust in myself as soon as I touch theology even with my little finger, not to speak of occupying myself with it more or less energetically or perhaps even professionally. And if I have done that, I have without fail become concerned with the new event and the miracle attested to by the Bible. This miracle involves far more than just the young man at Nain or the captain of Capernaum and their companions of whom the Gospels tell; far more than the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan; far more than the sun that stood still upon Joshua’s command at Gibeon. I have become involved in the reality of God that is only signaled by all those things. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals himself in his Son through the Holy Spirit, who desired to be the God of man so that man might live as his man. I have become involved in the wonder of this God, together with all its consequences for the world and for each and every man. And whatever, however, and whoever I may be in other respects, I have finally and profoundly become a man made to wonder at himself by this wonder of God. It is another question whether I know what self-wonderment means for me, whether I am ready and able to subordinate my bit of research, thought, and speech to the logic of this wonder (and not in reverse order!). But there can be no question about one fact: I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God. This confrontation occurs in even the most timid and untalented attempt to take seriously the subject which I have become involved or to work theologically at all, whether in the field of exegesis, Church history, dogmatics, or ethics.
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 61-62
What flows from wonder? Humility. Praise. Joy.
Notice Barth applies dispositions of astonishment and wonder to all who would try their hand and heart and head to the task of theology: “the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.” Whether a theologian is a doctor of the church or a person in the pew, “I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God.” One and all, together we ask, “Who am I?”
In Barth’s wider corpus, it would seem that to ask “Who am I?” is only possible in response to a prior question, “Who is God?”, a question that cannot be asked apart from revelation. Theology is response. Contemplation of the question, “Who is God?” broadens and expands the possibilities for our answer to the question, “Who am I?” Barth’s wonderment, captured above, is only possible if the answer to “Who is God?” has resulted in the conclusion that the truth about God is something magnificent, expansive, and unimaginably overwhelming, an understanding which is so very small in comparison to its totality that the little that we do grasp is like that of beholding a dewdrop in light of the ocean, or that of a sunbeam in its relationship to the sun.
Barth writes elsewhere that “the God who is the object of evangelical theology is just as lowly as he is exalted. He is exalted precisely in his lowliness.” It is this lowly God who appoints us, human beings, to serve God humbly, and as we serve to exalt that same God rightly, to honor his name as that name which is above all names.
This wonder becomes lost when we mistakenly lose sight of God as God is, and mistakenly exalt human beings (especially theologians!) to a position higher than is fitting for our station as creatures, rather than Creator. The question, “Who am I?”, rightly understood, aligns us with the prophet Isaiah who when found in the presence of God exclaimed, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
After this proclamation, the response of the heavenly host is one of lowliness, atonement, preparation and equipping, and, subequently, of calling:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
The next statement from the throne is a summons: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!”
This call and response continues to issue forth to each one of us. “Who am I?” “Who is God?” It is this very God who has called this very I to do this very work, with wonder.