Inadequacy and the theological task

The task of theology is ultimately the task of speaking about God after God. Attempting to do so is wrought with difficulties. Readers of this blog will find other, more eloquent posts detailing the problem of theological speech; human contingency and “violent” metaphysical systems are some of the endless curveballs sent our way today. In response to these difficulties, at least one natural response is to lament and adandon theological speech altogether.

Further, the immensity of the theological task is always rendered heavily on those who seek to pursue the discipline. I (hope I) am not alone in feeling woefully deficient in “doing” theology. Graduate school daily reminds me that the more I learn, the more I learn I do not know anything. Pressure is mounting to position myself for post-graduate work. Peers seem to grasp the specifics of medieval and modern thinkers much better than I.

In his magisterial book Barth’s Earlier Theology John Webster notes Barth’s utter lack of confidence in his intellectual ability as he taught through Zwingli’s theology at Münster,

 The pressure was rendered more acute by Barth’s sense of intellectual inadequacy: in another circular letter in late January of the next year [1923], he speaks with dismay of his lack of scholarly agility, his unsatisfactory knowledge of Latin and his poor memory.[1]

Despite his difficulty early on, Barth is widely acknowledged as the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Obviously he developed as a thinker, and perhaps he was undercutting what a first-rate mind he really had. But as I read Webster’s description certain thoughts I have been wrestling through crystallized. True theological speech is one that flows from an always already acknowledged understand of our inability to do so. But in this inability we find ourselves able. We speak because God has and continues to speak to us. We speak imperfectly as those encountered by the Word of God. The command of God encounters us and reaffirms out creatureliness by redefining it in relational terms, providing us with material means of proclamation: “Man has the character of responsibility… man is, and is human, as he performs this act of responsibility, offering himself as the response to the word of God, and conducting, shaping and expressing himself as an answer to it.”[2] Obedience “is the precise creaturely counterpart of the grace of God.”[3]

We speak because the Word has spoken. This does not make the task easy. An ever-changing world requires various modes of witness to the one God. The jury is still out on just what the next dominant expression of doctrine will look like. I take solace in imperfect proclamation of the Word, something always both possessed and unable to be possessed by the church, the divine Subject and Object we continually bear witness to in inadequate yet faithful ways.


[1] John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 174, 175

[3] CD, III/2, 207