Three Little Words
David Heddendorf

At some point late in his life, the story goes, Karl Barth was asked for his most significant theological insight. He replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I’m almost embarrassed to relate this anecdote, because it’s so often repeated. It’s probably the one thing that many people know about Barth. Yet while the exact words of the exchange are disputed, as well as whether it even happened, it reminds us that the Gospel, even for the author of the massive Church Dogmatics, comes down to a simple truth. For all our complex theological systems, the heart of Christianity will always be “Jesus loves me.”

 As someone who grew up, often uncomfortably, in a tradition of systematic theology—taking notes during sermons, analyzing thorny Bible passages, hearing every conundrum whittled down to a definitive answer—I was ready for a reply like Barth’s. I needed three little words to help dispel all the intellectual arrogance and recall me to Gospel basics. But the kernel of truth that ended up nourishing me wasn’t “Jesus loves me” or “God is love,” as central as those phrases are. The three little words I’d been waiting to hear came from my current pastor—not once but several times.

 The instance I remember best occurred in a sermon. After examining Jesus’s claim to be the only way to the Father, my pastor asked, “But what about all the people throughout human history who have never even heard about Jesus? Does God hold each one accountable for his or her lack of faith in Christ?” It was an urgent question, framed in clear, inescapable terms. I waited expectantly. My pastor paused only a second before delivering his answer.

 “I don’t know.”

 I didn’t jump up in my pew and shout “Hallelujah,” but I remember feeling a thrill. I don’t know. Had I ever heard those words from a pulpit before? I’d probably thought to myself, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” during discussions in Christian circles, but it never seemed like the right thing to say. Here was my pastor admitting he didn’t know the answer to a momentous question. He simply dropped it, moving on to things we could know, and could do.

That was a number of years ago, and I remain grateful for my pastor’s candor. I admire his willingness to say publicly, “I don’t know.” But I’ve noticed something about Lutheranism, my adopted tradition. “I don’t know” is a recurring phrase in our theology. These three little words arise in response to inevitable questions about distinctive Lutheran doctrines. How can it be that believers’ salvation is predestined by God, yet unbelievers are responsible for their unbelief? How can bread and wine be ordinary substances and at the same time the body and blood of Christ? Lutherans decline to resolve these contradictions. “I don’t know,” we confess.

 And so those three little words help define a system of belief. They can even become a source of pride, a triumphalist catch phrase. “We’re the people who dare to say ‘I don’t know’!” we might boast. At the very least, we claim the words as a signature attitude or disposition.

 At the time, my pastor’s remark didn’t fill me with pride at being Lutheran, or wow me with its theological prowess. Just the opposite. “I don’t know” implies humility, putting certainty and superiority aside. Confronted by a divine mystery, we fall silent in holy awe. In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor writes that people who deny any supernatural involvement in nature nevertheless feel a “sense of wonder” before uniquely human qualities like mind. By contrast, religious believers too often eliminate mystery by invoking “the modern concept of the ‘miracle.’” We turn supernatural events into explanatory tools, “a kind of punctual hole blown in the regular order of things from outside, that is, from the transcendent” (547). Seeking a wrinkle-free account of how the universe works, we iron out the mystery. Chalk anomalous circumstances up to a miracle, and suddenly it all makes sense. We’ve got a metaphysical ace up our sleeves.

As St. Paul likes to say, it isn’t so much that we know God (or anything else) as that God knows us (1 Cor. 13:12, Gal. 4:9). And because God knows us, we don’t try to explain everything. Nor do we settle for the complacent deferrals of agnosticism. The agnostic shrugs and says, “What do I know?” An astonished teenager, confused about what’s happening but known by God, says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV).

 “It is not for you to know times or seasons,” Jesus reminds his inquisitive disciples (Acts 1:7 ESV). Stop calculating, in other words, and start trusting. For short-sighted souls like us, “I don’t know” is not only honest, it’s freeing. I don’t need to know the future. I don’t have to figure out that paradox or inconsistency. I don’t need to square every seeming cosmic injustice. What I know is exactly what the old man who wrote millions of words about God knew. Jesus loves me.


David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His essays can also be found online at Front Porch Republic.


Work Cited

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2007. 

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