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Theological Work as Love
Eros and Agape in Barth's "Evangelical Theology"
About the author: Ashwin Afrikanus Thyssen is a Junior Lecturer in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University, specializing in church history, church polity, and religion and law. His current research investigates the intersection of race, sexuality, and religion.
In 1747, Charles Wesley penned the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Through its singing, since its production, congregations of people have focused their attention on the love that is signified in the incarnation of Christ. In gifting the church this hymn, Wesley quite successfully drew the link between love and the Christian’s affection for the object of that love—namely, God. It is, then, in and through this love that the Christian is rendered “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”1
Centuries after Welsey penned this hymn, Karl Barth would gift the world Evangelical Theology: An Introduction—a rather short work, though teeming with theological creativity. For this reflection, I turn my attention to the final chapter of this publication, a chapter devoted to theological work as love. Of this Barth is convinced, arguing that “theological work is a work when it is permitted to be done in love.2” He continues this line of thought by adding that “Theological work can only be undertaken, continued, and concluded by the reception and activation of the free gift of love. But as a good work it may and should be done in love.”3
In this contribution, then, I want to focus my attention on how theological work—in our time, in our manifold geographical locations—focuses our attention on the object of theological reflection. In short, this contribution firstly offers a conceptual discussion of the distinction Barth makes in his understanding of love; and, secondly, it draws Barth’s notion of theological work into conversation with contemporary realities.
Theological work, says Barth, is principally predicated on love—this love provides vitality for the labor undertaken. As such, Barth’s conception of love should be defined. For him, love has three aspects. Firstly, our love is a response, “Christian love arises and takes place as the human act which answers and corresponds to [God’s] act.” Secondly, as a response, our love corresponds to that of God—bearing its likeness as a copy. Thirdly, through responding to God’s love, humanity now participates in God’s love.4 In sum, then, humans are rendered recipients of and respondents to God’s love, now being able to identify the object of their love—which is God.
Bearing this in mind, it may also prove helpful to line out more clearly the distinction Barth offers in Evangelical Theology between Eros and Agape. Interpreting Barth’s ideas concerning love, McKenny argues: “In Christian love, or agape, one turns away from oneself and gives oneself to the other, even to the point of placing oneself under the other’s control. In eros, the self asserts itself and takes possession and control of the other, all for the sake of the self.”5 In his treatment of love, Barth clearly shows a preference for agape, at times differing it with eros. However, in my reading, Barth does indeed reject a Manichaean reading of the two. Rather, Barth—when read in between the lines—invites interpreters to exist in the creative tension between agape and eros, since he does note the value of eros in theological work.6
Inviting his readers to reflect on this creative tension, between agape and eros, Barth seeks to develop a theological framework in service of humanity and honor of God. As such, we are challenged to recognize the limits of eros and to consider how agape informs and shapes our theological reflection. Therefore, Barth posits, “those who are occupied with theology are compelled all along the line to look beyond themselves and their work in order properly to do what they do.”7
It is undoubtedly true that Barth offered his theological reflections in a time of immense conflict. In some ways, though rather different, our time may also be considered in conflict. Where, then, are we to find love in a hopeless place? In a time of pervasive structural violence—here the ecological crisis, the ongoing conflicts on the African continent, and the polarizing tone of global politics are examples that come to mind—many are in search of love, oftentimes the form of love preferred by Barth, namely agape. It is here, in response to this question, that Simone Weil assists me in my ruminations. Providing a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, Weil helpfully proffers: “We belong to [God]. [God] loves us … We do not have to search for [God], we only have to change the direction in which we are looking.”8 Barth, of course, would argue that the direction in which we are to look is Jesus Christ, who is the object of theological knowledge, in whom we encounter perfect love.9
Theological work which is good—contributing to creation’s flourishing and in praise of God—ought to be predicated on love. This love, says Barth, is self-giving because it responds to the love God has for us. Returning to Wesley’s hymn, our meditation on this love and our response to it would in countless ways render us “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” Or, as Barth put it, “simply to know about it affords ample occasion to join in the praise of God, the God of the covenant, the God who is love itself.”10
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Charles Wesley “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal, ed. African Methodist Episcopal Church (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011), 455.
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, tr. Grover Foley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 196.
Barth, Evangelical Theology, 196.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV, part 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London: T&T Clark, 1958), 760, 778.
Gerald McKenny, “Barth on Love,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth: Volume I, ed. George Hunsinger and Keith Johnson (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2019), 368.
Barth, Evangelical Theology, 199.
Barth, Evangelical Theology, 204.
Simone Weil, Waiting for God: Letters and Essays (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), 216.
Barth, Evangelical Theology, 203.
Barth, Evangelical Theology, 206.