‘A Theological Mode of Existence’ theologische Existenz: The Place of the Theologians and Their Jargon for the Church of Jesus Christ. More Kooi and Brink

I just got Cornelius van der Kooi’s and Gijsbert van den Brink’s freshly translated (from their native Dutch) Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction; and thus far it is wonderful! My last post touched upon what they think about the relationship between apologetics and Christian Dogmatics (which I’m still pondering); in this post I want to get into what they have to say about what they call (After Barth) the ‘theological mode of existence’ (theologische Existenz). This is an existence the Lord graciously put me into back about twenty-two years ago, and one I would never give up; it’s this existence in Christ that is life to me, without it I’d have no sanity.

I will share at some length what they have to say about this type of existence, and then offer up a few of my reflections on it in closing. Kooi and Brink write:

1.9 Theology as Mode of Existence

So far we have described theology and dogmatics primarily as a particular discipline—one of the many that one might study at an academic level. But many who are involved with it feel that theology is more than this. Theology carries with it a unique mode of existence. Barth and his followers referred to this as a theologische Existenz (theological mode of existence).

This theological mode of existence involves more than acquiring a substantial amount of knowledge, more than doing theology as creatively as possible. It concerns the cultivation of a certain underlying passion. This passion is, first, a passion for God and his kingdom. As the word indicates, a true theologian speaks about God. But his or her passion also concerns the people of God and the world of God. This dimension will perhaps not radiate from every page the theologian writes. It is a cultivated passion; that is, it lies in the background and will typically surface in a restrained manner. This limitation relates to the ability to maintain distance, which is part of the theological mode of existence. That is to say, as a theologian, one is able to look at the faith that is lived by people from a distance. It is possible to formulate abstractions and speak about them in intelligible language. Dogmaticians perhaps speak more about pneumatology than about the Holy Spirit, and more about eschatology than about heaven. This preference may be risky, but things will go wrong only when they speak exclusively in a detached kind of language. To a certain extent they must speak in terms of “–ologies” if they want to maintain an overview of the various parts (loci) that together form the content of the Christian faith, and to quickly see how, in a particular array, these elements may fit together. A sentence like “Barth suffers from pneumatological anemia” is typical theological jargon (apart from the question as to whether or not it is true).

As can happen in other areas of scholarship, such concepts help to create a jargon that is understood by representatives of different denominations and worldviews, enabling them to carry on a meaningful communication. Where believers without theological training will often listen to the views of others without understanding them and with great distaste, a common terminology enables theologians to learn about each other’s views in a fruitful—but often critical—dialogue. In other words, part of the theological mode of existence is the ability to change one’s perspective and, through a common theological language, to empathize with the faith-worlds of other groups of believers.

At the same time, it also belongs to life-as-theologian that one will always return to the “simple faith” and not get lost in a critical attitude, whatever one’s ability to talk about faith in abstract terms and to retain a critical distance. It is crucial to know when you must be critical, but also when you must leave your critical attitude behind,  in order to believe as a child in what Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) has called a “second naïveté.”[1]

This is very well said. This has been something that has personally dogged me over the years, even, and in particular online. When you enter into this arena you necessarily learn a bunch of jargon, but it is not an arbitrary education; it is intended to provide the Christian thinker with a lexicon filled with precision language in order to communicate clearly and pristinely among other initiates. Some gripe that such jargonese is necessarily elitist, but this is not the case; as Kooi and Brink so eloquently highlight.

There indeed is a ‘theological mode of existence,’ not all Christians, in fact most Christians probably never enter into it. But this is okay. Not all of us are called to be teachers, but if we are it should be expected that as teachers and theologians we would imbibe a certain mood filled with its realm of special symbols, and grammar for the express purpose of edifying and building up the church. Indeed these symbols or ‘words’ might seem abstract and removed from anything edifying at all, but they are present so that the theologian can help build a solid foundation wherein the practice of the church can move ‘rightly’ and grow deeper and wider in the grace of Jesus Christ. Theologians, or in Pauline language, teachers in the church have their place (Eph. 4). True, as for anyone in the body, there is always the danger of making one’s office an end in itself; an end where the potential glory of the office becomes inward curved and self-focused. And those who spend all their time thinking about the deep things of God, those who glean insights about God that are unique and special might be tempted to start glorying in this; in what they’ve come to understand about God. They might lose sight of the church, and the perspective that they have been given this gift of insight for the edification of others. But even with this always lurking danger, theologians have their place in the body of Christ; it is a place that I think needs to be appreciated more, particularly in our experienced based individualistic church culture.

As Kooi and Brink end, they mention Ricoeur’s second naïveté; I personally love this! Barth adopted this Ricoeurian approach himself, particularly in the way he navigated his engagement with the higher critics of the biblical text. Maybe we will have to unpack this jargon at another time, but it signifies something that I think can be of benefit for the body of Christ catholic.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 29-30.

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One Response to ‘A Theological Mode of Existence’ theologische Existenz: The Place of the Theologians and Their Jargon for the Church of Jesus Christ. More Kooi and Brink

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