Thursday 4 August 2005

The Top Five Countdown: a comment

If you have been following my countdown of modern theology’s greatest achievements, you might have noticed something rather peculiar. Almost everything on the list is a formal rather than a material achievement. Revelation as self-revelation; the hermeneutical question; actuality over possibility; the historical-critical method—all these are formal or methodological insights. They are not isolated material doctrines, but they are insights which shape the whole mode and structure of theological reflection.

And I think it’s natural that the most influential and most revolutionary intellectual achievements will tend to be formal rather than material—just think of Aristotle, or Descartes, or Kant, or Derrida.

But this makes any material theological achievement stand out all the more when it appears in the Top Five Countdown. I am referring of course to Number Five: Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. This is not a methodological insight, but it is a specific doctrinal formulation. And it is no accident that this is the only material theological achievement to make it on to the Top Five list.

Let me put it is as plainly as possible: I think Karl Barth’s doctrine of election is the greatest material achievement in the history of modern theology—just as the historical-critical method is the greatest formal achievement.

And it is perhaps worth adding that, according to many Barth scholars, Barth’s whole theology is nothing other than a theology of election.

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