A free theologian* works in communication with other theologians. He grants them the enjoyment of the same freedom with which he is entrusted. Maybe he listen to them and reads their books [and blog posts] with only subdued joy, but at least he listen to them and reads them. He knows that the selfsame problems with which he is preoccupied may be seen and dealt with in a way different from his own. Perhaps sincerity forbids him from following or accompanying some of his fellow theologians. Perhaps he is forced to oppose and sharply contradict many, if not most, of his co-workers. He is not afraid of the rabies theologorum. But he refuses to part company with them, not only personally and intellectually but, above all, spiritually, just as he does not want to be dropped by them. He believes in the forgiveness of both his theological sins and theirs, if they are found guilty of some. He will not pose as the detector and judge of their sins. Not yielding one iota where he cannot responsibly do so, he continues to consider the divine and human freedom in store for them. He waits for them and asks them to wait for him. Our sadly lacking yet indispensable theological co-operation depends directly or indirectly on whether or not we are willing to wait for one another, perhaps lamenting, yet smiling with tears in our eyes. Surely in such forbearance we could dispense with the hard bitter, and contemptuous thoughts and statements about each other, with the bittersweet book reviews and the mischievous footnotes [and snide blog posts] we throw at each other, and with whatever works of darkness there are! Is it clear in our minds that the concept of the "theological adversary" is profane and illegitimate?
- Karl Barth, "The Gift of Freedom" in The Humanity of God
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 95-96.
How is this possible? By distinguishing between our theological words and the word of God. This has two aspects. First, this means acknowledging the priority of God's gracious call to all of us. None of us are saved by correct theology, only by the prior summons of God to us in Christ. This promise and command comes prior to our attempts to understand it and remains even where such attempts (inevitably) fail.
And so second, distinguishing our theological discourse from God's word to us in Christ involves acknowledging our own fallibility and need of forgiveness (even and perhaps especially for our theological failings where our words are inadequate witnesses to the work and character of God). We are never purely right, just as those we disagree with are never purely wrong.
Therefore, we are to leave each other room to repent in the freedom granted us by the very divine word to which we are both trying to attend. And the space to repent is not a hostile silence in which we condemn one another in thoughts or to third parties, but a hopeful, prayerful waiting. Waiting may be painful; it takes humility as well as patience. It involves the refusal to condemn, to become inquisitor, to write off a fellow human being addressed by the divine word. But this waiting is not without joy, because it also serves to remind us that we both wait upon the same Lord who speaks to us both with grace and truth.
*For Barth, remember that "according to truly evangelical teaching the term 'theologian' is not confined to the seminary professor, to the theological student or to the minister. It is meant for every Christian who is mindful of the theological task entrusted to the whole Christian congregation, and who is willing and able to share in the common endeavour according to his own talents." (Ibid., 89)