Lacking the Theological Giants?


In his discussion of Hegel in Nineteenth Century Protestant Theology, Karl Barth commented on why philosophers seemed unable to go beyond the philosophy of Hegel in the latter half of the nineteenth century and opted instead to choose completely different paths of thinking. To answer those who felt that perhaps the age of the great thinkers had now passed away such that there were no longer any “great men” who could accomplish anything close to what Hegel did, Barth says, 

“It is always a bad sign when people can find nothing to say but that unfortunately the right people were lacking. This should be said either always or never. Every age, perhaps, has the great men it deserves, and does not have those it does not deserve. The only question remains whether it has a hidden flaw in the will of the age itself . . .”

Barth, Karl. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. London: SCM Press, 2001, p. 374.

I have often wondered whether and when the next Karl Barth will show up. Oh, yes, there are a good number of very good theologians doing very good work these days, but I would be hard pressed to identify a living analogue to Karl Barth today.

So is it simply that “great men” or “great women” are now lacking? That the age of the possibility of a “modern church father” has now passed? Barth doesn’t seem to think that we should think this way. But perhaps he has put his finger on something terribly troubling: Perhaps there is in our age a hidden flaw in our collective ecclesial will in which we collectively and systematically ensure that no one thinker or theologian attains to the stature that a Barth or a Hegel or a Calvin or an Augustine once enjoyed. Is it just that the shadow of a man like Karl Barth is just so long that we are too close to him in history that it is simply just too early for another great to rise in his place?

Or is it a flaw at all? Perhaps we have “arrived” to a point where no age before has gone.  In our utter commitment to “univeral rights of equality,” is it possible that we simply cannot and will not allow any theologian to rise up and to teach us and challenge a generation or two of lesser teachers and theologians in the way that Karl Barth does now? Perhaps the achievement of our age is a correcting of the flaw of previous ages where one voice was so often privileged over others. Maybe we have finally overcome that “flaw of the theological cult figure” and have finally managed to flatten out all the theological voices into a cacophony of differentiated voices, none of which has dominance but are leveled to become a sea of democratic equals? In other words, maybe the “achievement” of our age is that we have finally gotten to the place where we have convinced ourselves that it is better to have a lot more smaller voices speaking out than one louder, more dominant voice to which other lesser voices respond and interact?

I don’t know for sure, but there is something that bothers me about the latter vision over against the former. I have a gut feeling that the flaw has not yet been removed. Not that the former vision is necessarily better than or superior to the latter, but that perhaps the latter may end up impoverishing us even more than the former age did.


2 thoughts on “Lacking the Theological Giants?

  1. Nathan Wall

    I’ve wondered the same thing.

    Lately, I’ve wondered if we might consider N.T. Wright to occupy an analogous place in our time. Of course, Wright is working in the realm of biblical studies and biblical theology, but his influence within his discipline, within the church and across denominational lines, though falling short of someone like Barth, might be nearest to him out of all our contemporaries.

    Or am I revealing only (or mainly) the influence Wright has had on me?

    : )

  2. Nice call, Nathan. I do suspect that Wright is approaching a greater level of recognition than most, to be sure, though I’m doubtful that he will be seen as a “modern day church father.”

    Besides identifying particular individuals, though, do you think that it may actually be a good thing that there isn’t a dominant voice? Is it possible that the “post-modern penchant” for diversity of voices rightly keeps any one voice from swaying opinion too thoroughly?

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