When I wore “the green,” one of my instructors in sergeant’s school (PLDC) told us quite a few stories about his previous Airborne training at Ft. Benning and beyond. Someone asked him why he wasn’t still jumping and he answered: “Because the fear and amazement were gone, and I knew it was dangerous to jump without those.” In other words, he was saying he began to get overconfident (cocky) and was afraid he’d take risks that would cost his life.
Barth said something similar about theology and theologians, only in terms of wonder. The wonder of the theologian is caused by the new event which happens in history, new events such as the Word becoming flesh and the great miracles of Christ. In theology, there is an “infinitely wondrous event which compels a person, so far as he experiences and comprehends this event, to be necessarily, profoundly, wholly, and irrevocably astonished.” This wonder is so amazing that Barth calls theologians “little theologians.” I noticed that – when reading Barth, I always feel quite little – probably because Barth knew he was dealing with something so huge a word (or 10,000) could scarcely describe it.
Here’s his prescription for those who no longer feel wonder when confronted by Scripture, the word of God: do something else. If the theologian’s sense of wonder is gone, “both he and theology would fare better if he would devote his time to some other occupation.” If a man domesticates this wonder, if this wonder can fit into the common and familiar realm, “he would do better to bid theology farewell and devote himself to some other sort of activity.”
My Army instructor knew when to quit: when he got big and jumping got small. Barth tells us similar wise advice. Quit doing theology if you’re big and theology is small. A “little theologian” is the true theologian; there is no such thing as a “big theologian.” The same can be said of pastors and preaching.
Quotes taken from Evangelical Theology trans. G Foley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), chapter 6.
Speaking of Barth, be sure (if he fascinates you but you don’t want him to suck you in) to check out the new one about him, Engaging With Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques ed. Gibson & Strange.