The theologian-hood of all believers

Karl Barth (1886-1968), the most significant theologian of the twentieth century, wasn’t a Baptist (he was Swiss Reformed). Yet over the past 60 years Barth has arguably had at least as much influence on theologically-educated Baptists as any Baptist theologian during the same period.

Barth’s thought suggested a third way beyond fundamentalism and liberalism that provided a theological haven for many Baptist theologians and their students during the second half of the 20th century. Late in his career Barth lent weighty ecumenical support to the Baptist emphasis on believer’s baptism as a disciple-making practice, endorsing its normativity from within a tradition that also baptizes infants.

A less well-known connection between Barth and the Baptist vision is a parallel between Baptist ways of emphasizing the priesthood of all believers and Barth’s emphasis on the responsibility of all believers for the church’s theology. Barth put it this way in a lecture delivered to the Free Protestant Theological Faculty in Paris in 1934:

“[T]heology is not a private subject for theologians only. Nor is it a private subject for professors. Fortunately, there have always been pastors who have understood more about theology than most professors. Nor is theology a private subject of study for pastors. Fortunately, there have repeatedly been congregation members, and often whole congregations, who have pursued theology energetically while their pastors were theological infants or barbarians. Theology is a matter for the Church….But the problem of theology…is set before the whole Church. In the Church there are really no non-theologians. The concept “layman” is one of the worst concepts in religious terminology, a concept that should be eliminated from the Christian vocabulary. So, the [non*]-professors and the [non*]-pastors are co-responsible to see to it that the theology of the professors and pastors be a good one and not a bad one” (Karl Barth, God in Action, trans. E. G. Homrighausen and Karl J. Ernst [T. & T. Clark, 1936], pp. 56-57).

We might call Barth’s concept the “theologian-hood of all believers.” Barth insisted that all Christians are together responsible for the church’s task of giving a wholesome account of its convictions regarding God and that with which God is in relationship—the convictions that the church must teach in order to bring its life together ever more fully under the rule of Christ.

The Gospel of Matthew hints at something like the theologian-hood of all believers. It portrays the disciples as theological teachers-in-training who progressively grow in their understanding of Jesus’ teaching until at the conclusion of the Gospel they too are commissioned as teachers. Matthew is structured around five teaching discourses, the middle of which is the series of “parables of the kingdom of heaven” in chapter 13. At their conclusion Jesus asks the disciples,

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:51-52 NRSV).

Here Jesus compares one of the tasks of the disciple to the role of a scribe. In first-century Judaism, a scribe was not merely a copyist but a specialist in the application of the law — “what is old” — to the changed circumstances of contemporary Jewish life centuries after the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures—“what is new.” They were the theologians of Jesus’ day. If the “Great Commission” at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel applies to all believers, then so does the parable of the scribe (theologian) trained for the kingdom of heaven. As Barth insisted, “In the Church there are really no non-theologians.”

The theologian-hood of all believers is embodied in what British Baptists call “church meeting.” Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes of Oxford University explains what it means for the church meeting to seek together the mind of Christ:

“Upon the whole people in covenant there lies the responsibility of finding a common mind, of coming to an agreement about the way of Christ for them in life, worship and mission. But they cannot do so unless they use the resources that God has given them” (Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology [Paternoster, 2003], p. 86).

The resources that God has given the church for discerning the way of Christ include the theologians of the church—the theologians that are all believers as well as those who are pastors and professors of theology.

In 1997 a group of Baptist theologians in the United States affirmed the theologian-hood of all believers in relation to the church’s theological task of bringing out of the Scriptures “what is new and what is old”:

We affirm Bible Study in reading communities….We thus affirm an open and orderly process whereby faithful communities deliberate together over the Scriptures with sisters and brothers of the faith, excluding no light from any source. When all exercise their gifts and callings, when every voice is heard and weighed, when no one is silenced or privileged, the Spirit leads communities to read wisely and to practice faithfully the direction of the gospel” (“Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America,” § 1).

That sort of life together happens most fully when congregations promote and embrace the theologian-hood of all believers. Churches do that by forming all believers in the convictions and practices of Christian faithfulness they need if they are to fulfill their vocation as the church’s theologians, and churches do that by being willing to listen to the voices of all believers whenever they speak as the church’s theologians.

*Nerd note: The English translation of the German text of Barth’s lecture quoted above has it completely wrong at the points noted by asterisks; I’ve supplied my own translation in brackets (Barth wrote and published the lecture originally in German but delivered it in French). The translation by Homrighausen and Ernst reads [original German inserted in brackets], “So, the false professors [Nicht-Professoren] and the false pastors [Nicht-Pfarrer] are co-responsible to see to it that the theology of the professors and pastors be a good one and not a bad one.” But since two sentences before Barth wrote, “In the Church there are really no non-theologians [Nicht-Theologen],” it’s clear that Nicht-Professoren and Nicht-Pfarrer must be “non-professors” and “non-pastors.” If it weren’t for the 1936 publication date of the English translation by Homrighausen and Ernst, I’d have assumed that they resorted to a free web-based auto-translator. Let those who rely on translations beware! (For the truly nerdy: Barth’s lectures in Paris were originally published as Karl Barth, Offenbarung, Kirche, Theologie [Theologische Existenz Heute, no. 9; Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1934; the material quoted above is from page 43.)

 

Steve Harmon

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Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • Randy Gritter

    This seems to have been tried and found to be a failure. There are just so many churches that do this and arrive at very different ideas about what the bible says. Moving from the educated and the ordained to everyone with a bible does not make the differences go away. It magnifies them.When there is a difference is does not tell us who speaks for the church and who speaks for the schismatic group.

    This is great in matters that do not involve central doctrines. Things about which we can disagree and still be in fellowship. But we still need some way to get reliable truth about matters of faith and morals where there is disagreement. The best they can do is voting. But nobody really believes that the majority is always right and the minority is always wrong.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/barry.harvey Barry Harvey

    The theologian-hood of all believers is not an  improvement on the concept of soul competency.  Surely the members of a congregation need to be formed theologically in order to govern their common life and mission wisely, but this does not make one a theologian any more than being informed and talking with your doctors about your health makes you a physician, having regular meetings with your children’s teachers and participating in PTA makes you an educator, or serving on a jury makes one a lawyer.

    • Steven Harmon

      Barry, thanks for your concerns about certain directions one can take the notion I’ve set forth here. I share them and will address them in a subsequent blog post.

  • http://www.wistly.net Carson Chittom

    Totally orthagonal to your point, but I must quite protest Barth’s mention as “the most significant theologian of the twentieth century.”  On the contrary, I nominate Fr. Alexander Schmemann, former dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, who by many accounts was singlehandedly responsible for restoring regular, weekly communion as a normative behavior amongst Orthodox Christians in North America, as opposed to the–perhaps!–once yearly that had prevailed beforehand.  For anyone who believe is Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, such a service is clearly beneficial and significant.

    (So yes, I’m aware that I’m preaching at the wrong (read: protestant) audience.)

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