The dog days of New Jersey summer provide ample time for theological reading and reflection. I had a number of books in my sights. My latest target was Barth’s On the Humanity of God, and I was going to tear into it with guns blazing. I had my coffee. I had my highlighter. And I had a single 27-page monograph in my lap—by no means a tome. All I needed was an hour or two of uninterrupted time to slay my quarry and add it to my trophy wall (aka my bookshelf).
But then it happened.
Two paragraphs in, my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter (whom I had naively offered to keep an eye on) meandered over to the kiddie pool and insisted that I join her—immediately and with no questions asked. “Daddy. Book. All done!” she decisively said, motioning furiously with her little hands. I glanced down longingly at my beloved book, then up at my beloved daughter, and I sadly realized that Karl Barth was going to have to wait. So I shut the cover, altered my plans, and traded in the stimulating world of theological pursuits for the slightly more humdrum realm of kiddie pools and strollers and hot wheels.
Truth be told, part of me was deeply frustrated. I love learning. I love spending hours poring over classic theological works and learning from the great thinkers of the faith. In other words, I love reading, and when that precious learning time is stripped away from me, I become anxious and insecure. I’m well aware of my own theological deficiencies; how few of Luther’s Works I’ve read in their entirety, how I’ve yet to encounter Aquinas firsthand, how I haven’t ventured much beyond The Confessions in the writings of Augustine, how long it’s been since I’ve re-read Mere Christianity or The Chronicles of Narnia, how I don’t know my Book of Concord as well as I should. On and on the list goes, but these days it’s not just unread books that weigh on my conscience. It’s also my podcast feed filling up with un-listened-to episodes, and my YouTube channels filling up with great, unwatched theological content, and the writings at 1517.org that I just haven’t had time to get to (you should check them out). As the lists get bigger, so does my sense of shame and incompetence. There just never seems to be enough time to read everything I want.
What this churning sense of discontent reveals is that my identity is deeply bound up with my level of theological acumen. The more I know, the more I come to see myself as self-sufficient, proving true the words of the Apostle Paul that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). Deep down in the crevices of my self-justifying heart, I believe that possessing—in the words of Charles Taylor—“a lock on the divine mysteries”—will give me a leg up in my God-ward quest (Taylor, A Secular Age). The mathematics of my default operating system compute like this: The greater my understanding and the greater my proficiency and the greater my mastery over any given subject—including God—the greater my significance. I derive my value from my theological prowess, driven by the ever-present fear of not knowing enough. The bigger my bookshelf, the greater my sense of self-importance. The problem with this, though, was recognized long ago by Qoheleth (Eccl 12:12): “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.” Justification sola bookshelf always exacts a pound of flesh.
But thanks be to God, I am not justified by the size of my bookshelf. I am not justified by my theological acumen. I am not justified by my great depth of thought or by how many books I have read. I am justified by Sola Gratia through Sola Fide in Solus Christus. The only currency that counts in God’s economy is the blood of his son (1 Pet 1:18), graciously poured out for sinners like you and me. I am loved not because I am a great thinker but because God is a great Savior. All of my theological endeavoring will not squeeze one more ounce of grace from him. While I may aspire to be like Thomas Aquinas, who plunged his feet in cold water early every morning to keep himself awake just to read more works, the reality is that I’m not. And that’s OK. Because Christ frees me from the bondage of having to know everything. To co-opt another’s phraseology, I am freed from seeing God as an object to be studied and released to make him the subject of my life.
Of the thousands of volumes and millions of words that have been written about God, only one word ultimately matters: Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). He becomes God’s final word, the great “The End” (John 19:30), to all of our theological laboring. And he is a different kind of word, for this is not a word that we have to read. Instead, it is a Word that reads us, interprets us, and tells us the true story of who we are: broken and shattered beyond self-repair, yet redeemed and loved by a God on a Cross whose mercy knows no limits.
As I pushed the stroller around the yard, making sputtering noises and pretending to be an airplane, my daughter squealed with delight, now clutching Karl Barth in her hands. The juxtaposition was too striking to ignore: A seminal book by one of the 20th century’s greatest minds held in the tiny, peanut butter-stained hands of a toddler using it to swat bugs. When I finally did get the chance to read it, these words jumped off of the page: “There is no ground for believing ourselves justified because of our, perhaps only illusionary, greater depth of thought.” (1)
I’m certain I couldn’t have said it any better myself.