Ever notice that the language theologians speak is completely different from the everyday Christians?
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.
Sometimes there are good reasons for this. For one, people with an education are going to use bigger words then one hears in everyday conversation. For example, the title of the article uses the word “pretentious,” which may not be a difficult word, but not one we hear every day. In the same way, there are certain theological terms (i.e. eschatology, Federal Headship, exomologesis, etcetera) which convey theological ideas in words which vary in common usage even among believers.
Another reason theologians may speak unlike normal believers is that some of them are geniuses. Now, a mark of a true genius is the ability to convey complicated notions in easy-to- follow ways. Augustine and Luther, regarded as geniuses in their own rights, are examples of such men.
However, some geniuses are so far beyond that of normal genius, or they are asked to address subject matter so obscure or difficult, that what they write begins bordering on the incomprehensible. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica would be an example of this. Interestingly enough, his Biblical commentaries are relatively easy to follow.
However, there is yet another reason why some theologians (and people of other stripes) are so difficult to understand: pretentiousness. Some people have the tendency to deliberately use wording that gives the appearance of greater profundity than that actually exists.
For example, if a specific writer has an “internal vocabulary” that you have to know in order to “get” him, chances are he is being pretentious. Further, if the theologian communicates old ideas in vague ways, repackaging them as new, this also is very pretentious because it gives the impression of ingenuity where it genuinely does not exist.
As some here have noticed, almost none of my reading is from modern theologians (though I am heavily indebted to both R.C. Sproul and John Piper, published theologians who are comprehensible and so useful to so many.) Rather, I read the church fathers who for all intents and purposes were much less pretentious (or made less so by translators.) Hence, I find them much easier to understand and learn from than a 2,000 page book on systematic theology which 40 percent of which are footnotes that seem to serve the purpose of making the author look well-read than actually adding content and showing necessary sources which would actually assist the reader in understanding the subject in a practical sense.
Now, I am not setting out here to definitively prove that most, some, these, or those theologians are pretentious. I am merely giving my opinion, as someone who is relatively educated and once published in a scholarly periodical, of what I observe among academics. As I can lay some modest claim to being “an academic,” if I find something hard to understand, it is because the author deliberately vague or (as this sometimes occurs) he is completely irrational. This does not mean that I understand absolutely everything, but if I am 90th+ percentile in the education scale and something written is hard to comprehend, there is a point where the fault is not with the reader but with the writer.
Further, I make no apologies for the fact that I am an anti-intellectual. I think we have too much pseduo-education as is. I do not think that churches need university-trained pastors and elders (in fact, we would have more to gain by getting rid of the seminary system.) The Scripture defines wisdom as being something that is not as the word sees it, but rather fearing the Lord and walking in His ways. The simplest man can be a thousand times more wise than Karl Barth, who for all appearances neither feared God nor walked by His commandments.
Now, on the topic of Barth, he is my inspiration for writing this article. Personally, I am not a big fan of multi-volume works when the same points can be made in a much more condensed fashion. This is something that Barth overtly refused to ever do, and when asked to put into layman’s terms what he believed he replied on several occasions, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Perhaps this was intended to be a glib reply, only Barth knows (though his comments in English were often deliberately glib, please see here and here), but it does seem to say that no one can seriously sum up his theology in an intelligent way.
Now, while I certainly cannot read the man’s mind, I think the big reason he could not sum up his beliefs in such a fashion was because of his pretentiousness. The following was sent to me by a commenter to help me “understand” the profundity of Barth. It is an excerpt from George Hunsinger’s How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology. I am going to pick it apart in order to show that Barth’s theology is pretentious. This shows that those who try to understand Barth and men like him, intent upon studying the internal vocabularies of such men and speak of simple matters in novel ways are simply being needlessly confusing, impressing only themselves and others within their small circle (and others wishing to be part of the “in” crowd.) I intend to do this in order to make the point that pretentiousness is useless.
The following in italics is written by Hunsinger and below the excerpts are my summaries of what in the content:
“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.
In short, actualism “cryptically” (as Mr. Hunsinger admits) refers to the impossible gulf between man and God. Man cannot understand God or what pleases Him by the powers of his own reason, so he must rely upon God’s revelation to guide him.
“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of
affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to [be] applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.
“Ontic state of affairs” and “noetic procedure,” pretentious language if there ever was any, refers to how we understand revelation in the light that, as we discussed before, there exists an impossible chasm between man and God. The answer to the problem is to understand the centrality of Jesus Christ in everything, or in short to have a Christological view of revelation.
“Objectivism” is a motif pertaining to Barth’s understanding of revelation and salvation. It describes not only the means by which they respectively occur, but also the status of their occurrence. Revelation and salvation are both thought to occur through the mediation of ordinary creaturely objects, so that the divine self-enactment in our midst lies hidden within them. The status of this self-enactment is also thought in some strong sense to be objective–that is, real, valid, and effective–whether it is acknowledged and received by the creature or not. Revelation and salvation are events objectively mediated by the creaturely sphere and grounded in the sovereignty of God.
Objectivism refers to how the impossible gulf is bridged, namely through the Scripture and the sacraments (both of which communicate revelatory truths and God’s grace.) Both are entirely the product of God, but are “hidden” in created things (i.e. a book, the bread and wine, water baptism, etcetera.)
“Personalism” is a motif governing the goal of the divine self-manifestation. God’s objective self-manifestation in revelation and salvation comes to the creature in the form of personal address. The creature is encountered by this address in such a way that it is affirmed, condemned, and made capable of fellowship with God. Fellowship is the most intimate of engagements and occurs in I–Thou terms. The creature is liberated for a relationship of love and freedom with God and therefore also with its fellow creatures.
Personalism refers to how objectivism is relevant in the lives of individuals. God’s revelation is made “in such a way” the creature is “made capable of fellowship with God.” Perhaps what Barth means (and Hunsinger is trying to communicate) is that Jesus reveals Himself in the life of the believer in a personal way, a notion not without merit as believers are indwelt personally by the Holy Spirit.
“Realism,” as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to Barth’s conception of theological language. Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference. In itself it is radically unlike the extralinguistic object to which it refers (God), but by grace it is made to transcend itself. Through transcending itself by grace, theological language attains sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object for reference truly and actually to occur. Besides the mode of reference, realism also pertains to the modes of address, certainty, and narration found in scripture as well as in language of the church based upon it.
Realism pertains to the fact that revelation as reflected in “theological language” communicates truths about God, even though God is beyond describing with human words. “Theological language” pertains to the literary conventions found in Scripture.
“Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.
Rationalism merely refers to the use of exegesis of Biblical texts in order to bring out their intended meanings.
So, all those fancy descriptions aside, what we are being told is that Barth used the preceding terms to communicate the fact that God is beyond description, but He condescends Himself to us through the Scriptures and sacraments so that we may have a relationship with Him and salvation from sin.
It is interesting to see how only few words, and simple ones at that, can communicate the same, elementary notions that the specialized internal vocabulary that only applies to Barth does for us.
Now someone might complain that I “missed this” or “misunderstood that” because “you need to read this first” or “understand that beforehand.” Why not just say what you mean and mean what you say?
Barth’s writing eludes this simple rule of communication, and it is for this reason no one can even coherently discuss what the man “really” meant because perhaps no one knew what he really meant. In fact, he probably did not understand what he was really getting at. He left it vague, as the ideas were vague to himself. After all, we are talking about God. We do reach a point where He is beyond explaining and understanding.
This is why I repeat my challenge*: Can anyone demonstrate that anything Barth taught was new and insightful? Which of his teachings are useful? What good reason do we have to invest time into reading Barth?
And let me end with a couple rhetorical questions: If we cannot say he taught anything new or insightful, then why is he a great theologian? It certainly is not because he took things that were complicated and made them easier to understand (in fact, he took easy to understand things and made them more difficult to understand.)
Further, if he is not a great theologian, nor even able to pass the muster of being a church member not under discipline, then why even honor the man’s memory?
*I am starting to suspect, though I cannot prove it certainly, that those who defend Barth most vociferously do so because they have invested so much time reading him (or about him) that they feel the need to be validated in some sense.
This is why they respond to me with personal attacks pertaining to my judgment before God without actually contradicting the content of what I wrote. I would like to point out the irony in that my critics say that I am in trouble with God for what I said about Barth on one hand, but on the other hand saying that Barth somehow is not judged by God accordingly.
Or, in other words, I am in trouble with God because I judge that Barth was an unrepentant sinner, but Barth is not in trouble for having an unrepentant, lifelong extramarital affair which was probably physically consummated.
If it is so difficult for some to see the irony in this, are they intellectually capable of reading Barth? Can they make much use of a higher education?
I am increasingly convinced that we all suffer from varying degrees and kinds of spiritual blindness. May the Lord have mercy on us and lift the veil that prevents us from seeing things, though so plain, we cannot comprehend as they require spiritual discernment.