On Being a Free Range Christian

As Christians we are commanded to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and along with this commandment–being freerangethe giver of good gifts that He is–the Lord Jesus has gifted his church with a multitude of teachers; these teachers range across various traditions and denominations, and provide unique insights that can only be obtained by inhabiting their respective theological traditions in their respective ways. If we look at this reality the right way we will thank Jesus for these gifts, and as particular persons particularly located in our own respective traditions we will avail ourselves to the riches available found in these various teachers whether they be in our tradition or not; whether we agree fully with them or not. We will be driven by a desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ in community with all of our brothers and sisters bound together by the singular reality that defines all of our existence as Christians; the singular reality of God’s life in Christ with us and for us.

Karl Barth echoes the sentiment:

In the Church there are fathers: father Luther, father Calvin, other fathers. Why should a free theologian not be their son and disciple? But why should he insist on complete agreement with them? Why should he artificially reinterpret their findings until Luther is in agreement with him and says what he himself so badly wants to say? Why should he not respect the freedom of the fathers and let them express their wisdom and then learn from them what in his own freedom he may and can learn from them?[1]

This is the way that Barth himself would want us to approach him among the other teachers that Jesus has gifted his church with. This is the way I approach Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Webster, John Calvin, and many other theologians who Christ has gifted the church with. I obviously have my favorites (like Barth, Torrance, and Webster et al), as do you, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to die for my preference for one theologian over the other; I go to certain ‘fathers’ in the Faith because they edify me, and point me to Christ. And I particularly like Barth because he is humble enough to point the church to various teachers within the body of Christ and not simply to trumpet himself as the best of the teachers.

But I don’t, in the end, want to make this post about Barth, I want to herald the idea that we as ‘free theologians’ ought to feel free to learn from a variety of theologians; insofar as these theologians help to pique our imaginations and draw us closer to Christ as they point us to him, not away from him. Barth says further about being open to other ‘fathers’ or theologians:

A free theologian works in communication with other theologians. He grants them the enjoyment of the same freedom with which he is entrusted. Maybe he listens to them and reads their books with only subdued joy, but at least he listens to them and reads them. He knows that the selfsame problems with which he is preoccupied may be seen and dealt with in a way different from his own….[2]

In short a free theologian is someone who is humble enough to learn from others; even if these others might be at odds with us in some ways, one way or the other.

Ultimately, the point I want to press is what motivates us; what motivates us to be willing to draw from various pools of theological thought and insight? I believe that it must be an insatiable desire to know Jesus Christ at all costs! If we are driven by this love (the love of Christ), if this love constrains us, then we will be open to learn from others, from other theologians (which we all are as Christians); we may not always agree, but usually this is where the best learning takes place, this is where the important doctrine surfaces.

[1] Karl Barth, Gift of Freedom: Foundation of Evangelical Ethics in The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 94.

[2] Ibid., 95.