Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Karl Barth: on why there is no such thing as a great theologian

“With horror I read [a] statement that I was the greatest theologian of the century. That really terrified me…. What does the term ‘greatest theologian’ actually mean? … As a theologian one can never be great, but at best one remains small in one’s own way…. Let me again remind you of the donkey I referred to [earlier]. A real donkey is mentioned in the Bible, or more specifically an ass…. It was permitted to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of the donkey that went its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time, just as I was, in spite of all the things, the disagreeable things, that quite rightly are and will be said about me. Thus I was used…. I just happened to be on the spot. A theology somewhat different from the current theology was apparently needed in our time, and I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry it as best I could.”

—Karl Barth, “Karl Barth’s Speech on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday Celebrations,” in Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Collins, 1971), pp. 112-17.

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