An Appeal for “Theological Existence Today” After the Election

Although I have only followed the presidential campaigns to a small degree and have written about them even less, I am aware of how much time and energy many American evangelicals have devoted to this election, taking active stands on behalf of one candidate or the other in the name of religious liberty, social morality, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with this per se, yet I think it is a cause for concern if, as I suspect has occurred in certain quarters, American evangelicals have expended more effort on advocating for or against a particular candidate than on fulfilling their true calling relative to the kingdom of God. Now that the election_1 is over and Donald Trump has emerged victorious, it is just as critical, now as before, that the church remind itself of what that calling truly is, namely, to bear witness in the world to the Word of God, to Jesus Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords before whom every knee will bow and whose name every tongue will confess.

In light of this, I find the following exhortation both timely and convicting in this particular moment. It was written by Karl Barth in 1933 to German Christians who were struggling with what to do in the face of the growing Nazi threat in their country. Barth was distressed over the way in which the pressing political and social issues had seemed to take a priority in the thinking of the German church over confidence in and allegiance to the Word of God. What is fascinating, at least to me, is that to which Barth called his fellow Christians: although rightly admonishing them not to align themselves with the National Socialist movement, he did not so much urge them to oppose the movement directly as he pleaded with them, especially with preachers, teachers, and theologians, to fulfill their charge to faithfully proclaim the Word of God which alone had the power to triumph, and which indeed had already triumphed, over their adversaries. Thus wrote Barth:

The one thing that must not happen to us who are theological professors, is our abandoning our job through becoming zealous for some cause we think to be good. Our existence as theologians is our life within the Church, and, of course, as appointed preachers and teachers within the Church. There are some things about which there is unanimity within the Church. One is, that there is no more urgent demand in the whole world than that which the Word of God makes, viz. that the Word be preached and heard. At all costs this demand has to be discharged by the world and the Church itself, cost what it may. Another thing there is agreement about is, that the Word of God clears out of the way everything that might oppose, so that it will triumph over us and all other opponents, for the reason that it has triumphed already, once for all, over us and on our behalf, and over all its other opponents…

And, particularly as preachers and teachers of the Church, we are at one in fear but also in joy, that we are called to serve the Word of God within the Church and in the world by our preaching and our teaching. We agree, too, that with the fulfilment of our calling we not only see ourselves stand or fall, but we see everything that is important to us in this world, however precious or great it be, standing or falling. So that to us no concern can be more pressing, no hope more moving than the concern and hope of our ministry. No friend can be dearer than one who helps us in this ministry, no foe more hateful than he that wants to hinder us in this ministry.

We are agreed about this too, that alongside of this first business, as the meaning of our labour and our rest, our diligence and relaxation, our love and our scorn, we brook no second as a rival. But we regard every second or third thing that may and should incite us as included and taken up in this first concern, and condemned or blessed thereby. On these things we agree or we are not preachers and teachers of the Church. And this is what is meant by what we term our “Theological existence,” viz. that in the midst of our life in other aspects, as, say, men, fathers and sons, as Germans, as citizens, thinkers, as having hearts ever in unrest, etc., the Word of God may be what it simply is, and only can be to us, and taxes our powers, particularly as preachers and teachers, to the full as the Word alone can and must do.

To-day we can lose our existence as theologians and teachers, which consists in our attachment to God’s Word and plying our calling particularly to the ministry of the Word…For the mighty temptation of this age, which appears in every shape possible, is that we no longer appreciate the intensity and exclusiveness of the demand which the Divine Word makes as such when looking at the force of other demands: so that in our anxiety in face of existing dangers we no longer put our whole trust in the authority of God’s Word, but we think we ought to come to its aid with all sorts of contrivances, and we thus throw quite aside our confidence in the Word’s power to triumph. That is to say, we think ourselves capable of facing, solving and moulding definite problems better from some other source than that from and by means of God’s Word. By doing this we show that we do not esteem God to be a working factor in anything as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer. That our hearts are thus divided between God’s Word and all other sorts of things which, avowedly or tacitly, we invest with Divine glory. By so doing we demonstrate that our hearts are not in contact with God’s Word. And this means that under the stormy assault of “principalities, powers, and rulers of this world’s darkness,” we seek for God elsewhere than in His Word, and seek His Word somewhere else than in Jesus Christ, and seek Jesus Christ elsewhere than in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. And so we become as those who do not seek for God at all.[1]

As it was for German Christians in the 1930s, so also is this a salutary reminder for the American church that today, after the election, may likewise be tempted to become (or continue being!) zealous for some cause – political, social, or otherwise – that it thinks is good and thereby abandon its primary task of proclaiming the Word of God. Indeed, as Barth avers, the “mighty temptation of this age” is to “no longer appreciate the intensity and exclusiveness of the demand which the Divine Word makes”. Woe to us if we exchange confidence in the “Word’s power to triumph” for trust in (or, for some, despair because of) the fact that Donald Trump is the newly elected president of the United States. Trump, like all other world leaders before and after, and indeed like every human being who has ever lived, is like the grass that fades and the flowers that wither in contrast to the “word of our God [that] will stand forever” (Is. 40:8). It is true that we must pray for Trump and for the leaders that will surround him during his presidency. But we must not put in him our trust which must rest solely in the Word of God. To find ourselves opposite the Word, whether by concious choice or simple neglect, is to succumb to “the stormy assault of ‘principalities, powers, and rulers of this world’s darkness'”. May our hearts not be divided, but may we give ourselves wholly, utterly, and completely to the Word and its assured victory over the kingdoms of this world. We must demand of ourselves, as Barth stressed, a “theological existence” both today and in the days to come.

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[1] Barth, K., 2011. Theological Existence To-Day! (A Plea for Theological Freedom), Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pp.11-16.

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3 Responses to An Appeal for “Theological Existence Today” After the Election

  1. Rod Lampard says:

    I’m still wary about connecting German Christian positivism with Evangelical Americans. I view the former as being more aligned to the American Christian liberal establishment, than the latter. The right/left metaphors don’t serve as helpful measuring sticks. It’s in a sense a false dichotomy. Particularly in relation to enforced new cultural laws, freedom, merging of ideology as master over theology, fear and control via excessive political correctness, and abortion. In the end, as is evident in your post, we trust and hope in Jesus Christ, not the United States.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah Rod, I get it, I do. But from your final comment I think you understood my main point. I really had no intention of drawing a parallel between the German and American churches other than to highlight the fact that when faced with a political or social crisis of some form or another, the church’s priority needs to be the proclamation of the Word rather than getting sidetracked by other issues and causes. That’s all. I thought that in this sense, Barth’s words were apt. Remembering our interaction on this in the past, I was trying to be more cautious this time around!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rod Lampard says:

        Exactly. Which is why Christians need to theologically challenge the imperatives of the progressive, “social Gospel”, that has slowly replaced Jesus Christ as the Gospel, with loyalty to a political ideology, a faux Christ, faux gospel and therefore a faux god.

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