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.


Ben Myers said...

Or, to paraphrase: the only way to be "a great theologian" is to be "a real ass"!

Anonymous said...

Ben, finally you're onto something and heading away from that distractive poll. See my post on McCormack on Barth here:

scott said...

I don't discount the poll altogether (I'm a 'perspectivalist', so they say - so I'm fine using "best" if we qualify enough). But in light of your comment, perhaps we should be asking:
Which living theologian is the biggest ass?

That would satisfy many it seems, since Hauerwas would have to be a contender (though I think he's sweet), as would Hart and the R.O. crew.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, you're right, Scott. Incidentally, the fact that today most theologians are too respectable to be "made an ass of" might go some way towards explaining why there have really been no "great theologians" since Barth.

Robert Cornwall said...

I have a question -- knowing that Barth would discount the idea of a "greatest theologian," we could toss aside this poll or mine, but the question I have is this:

Is Rowan Williams doing so well as a result of a sympathy vote? He's been taking such a beating lately on ecclesiastical grounds, I thought that might be the reason. Especially when we Moltmann fans are left to vote for Pannenberg as our stand in!

Halden said...

Rowan Williams is winning because he's the greatest Anglican theologian since Cranmer, regardless of one's opinions on his ecclesiastical work. Personally I voted for Jenson. But Williams and he definitely deserve the top two spots.

Anonymous said...

The above should not read "Halden", it should read "Kim Fabricius". :)

By the way, if Barth is an ass, can I be the manure?

Anonymous said...

Didnt Aquinas spend years spinning a vast complicated theology.

And then was Graced with a beatific vision which "caused" him to stop doing theology because he understood how essentially useless it all was/is.

And how important is theology anyway?

Do you think that the vast power and intelligence that pervades the entire universe and that both creates and destroys entire galaxies for breakfast has any interest in theology?

Ben Myers said...

"Do you think that the vast power and intelligence that pervades the entire universe and that both creates and destroys entire galaxies for breakfast has any interest in theology?"

Crikey, I sure hope not.

Rory Shiner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rory Shiner said...

Do you think that the vast power and intelligence that pervades the entire universe and that both creates and destroys entire galaxies for breakfast has any interest in theology?

No, presumably that God doesn't care in the slightest about theology.

The God of the Bible on the other hand seems to be very interested in how we speak about him.

David Williamson said...

Do you think Barth was alluding to Luther and making a comment on reformation theology?

I only mention this because over at Not As The Scribes there is this rollicking Luther quote:

"If however, you feel you are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing because you have done it so beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it–if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, ‘See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.’ That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven."

Ben Myers said...

Hi David: yes, that's exactly the passage that Barth quotes in this speech, and that's the "ass" that he's referring to. It's a wonderful passage from Luther, isn't it?

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