Karl Barth, the Word of God and the primacy of preaching


In 1928 ten years after the end of WW I, American Episcopalian Priest Douglas Horton translated some of the earlier works of Karl Barth, introducing him to a public just becoming aware of this new voice on the theological scene. He described the phenomenon of a new theological movement in his introduction (The Word of God and the Word of Man, Peter Smith, 1978 & Harper and Row, 1957):

One of the secrets of the swift access the new theology has found into the life of the Continent is that it takes its beginning from the scene in the local church rather than in the university library. Barth, like Schleiermacher, and unlike many of the book-theologians of the last decades, has enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a pastoral contact with real people. His approach to the problem of life and the beginnings of his “theology of crisis” were made when as a minister he first realized the utter impossibility of communicating to his hearers the faith by which he himself was animated.

It is worth remembering that it was in 1909 after Barth completed his theological education, that he spent two years as an apprentice pastor under Adolf Keller in Geneva. This was the very pulpit from which John Calvin had held sway over Geneva in the sixteenth century. Yet, very few attended worship among the registered church members and he often preached to no more than a dozen people. It was the kind of society Barth called “non-Christian Christendom” in his Church Dogmatics. A story of Barth’s pastoral visit to a sick old man in the parish illustrates this nominal situation. When Barth naively asked the old man to which church he belonged, he responded resentfully: “Pastor, I’ve always been an honest man. I’ve never been to church and I’ve never been in trouble with the police”. Barth was visiting a man whom he assumed to be a believer as the church records indicated. Yet this was patently not the case. What followed was Barth’s recognition that this was not a unique case—this man was representative of vast numbers of people in that society. He remarked later “I knew everything, and knew it better than anyone else. And I entered the ministry and stumbled up the steps of Calvin’s pulpit with an inexperience and awkwardness and unshakeable confidence reminiscent of the behaviour of a young St Bernard”  [1]

During the next ten years of ministry in Safenwil, a little village in north-central Switzerland, he observed the same general disinterest in church religion. Dorrien (2000:31) says that his sermons were long, vigourous and demanding for his listeners but failed to really connect. In this state of affairs in a so called Christian society he struggled with the fact that ordinary parishioners failed to encounter and hear the Word of God speaking. As a result Barth came to believe more and more that religion was the projection of general (or even some specific) human traits, values, and nature onto an idol that was thereby created.

Theology’s proper context should be the Church. Its function is to critically test the Church’s proclamation through the hearing of the Word of God. This took some time to dawn on the consciousness of this young minister. As Lane (1992:200) observed of the early period in his theological journey, Barth ‘came to see the bankruptcy of liberalism, which exalted man at the expense of God, which studied man’s religion rather than God’s revelation’. If liberalism, he began to reason within himself, could serve as a theological platform for the militarism and chauvinism of his until-then-esteemed German teachers, then it was a defective theology. His ‘bombshell’ commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans (first published in the aftermath of the first world war in 1919) was the dawning of this realisation and the repudiation of the bankruptcy of liberal theology. Galli (2000:24) makes the cutting comment that “liberal theology had domesticated God into the patron saint of human institutions and values”. This commentary “rocked the theological community. Liberal theologians gasped in horror and attacked Barth furiously, for in this and later works, he assaulted their easy optimism”. He later colourfully described this experience of becoming the enfant terrible amongst his theological peers in his now famous words

As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone.”  [2]

This “prise de conscience” epitomises Barth’s transition from a liberal, theologically erudite churchman to a radical Professor of Theology. Barth’s personal journey is so like his doctrine of revelation. The changes came unexpectedly, and to a great extent unsolicited on his part. However, his life demonstrates that being comfortable and satisfied with the status quo is anathema to progress in pastoral ministry. How sad that paradigms of ministry remain fixed and are virtually sacrosanct to those of us who often find our denominational affiliation eminently satisfying. Why question the received wisdom? Barth and his friends like Thurneysen and Gogarten in their early years of intense study as they overturned much of what they had been taught, are examples to all of us in pastoral ministry that culturally influenced norms must be held up to scrutiny and even if it means overturning a whole theological system, then we must have the courage to do it.

The liberal message which Barth had learned from his professors did not provide the real resource that his people needed. Barth’s later articulation of the threefold expression of the Word of God, that the Word of God revealed is Jesus Christ, the Word of God written is the scriptural witness, and the Word of God proclaimed is the preaching of the Church, although much criticised, is a helpful model for a church in a post enlightenment and post-modern society. This was not a conclusion he came to overnight as he grappled with the nature of revelation, the touchstone of his theology. He himself said that it “did not come into being as the result of any desire of ours to form a school or to devise a system; it arose simply out of what we felt to be the ‘need and promise of Christian preaching” (1957:100). This is a very high view of Christian preaching, to place it alongside the revelation of God in Christ and the Scriptures and yet as Paul asks in Romans 10, “How shall they hear without someone preaching to them?” Perhaps this classical reformed view of the centrality of preaching allied to a Barthian concept of revelation is a bit too high for some. An often heard critique is that this is so other worldly and occupying such a rarified atmosphere that it has little relevance with its language leaning so much towards God’s direct speech. Zahrnt, however, while being one of those critics (1969:119) maintained that the starting point of Barth’s theology was born out of “the distress of pastors in their preaching”. It is a theology specifically crafted for clergy, “which was more concerned that preaching should be correct than with the direction in which it was aimed”. So does Barth’s theology of preaching take us in the direction of a true dialogue? (ibid; 121).  Is this the primary criterion by which we would judge the effectiveness of preaching?

Barth believed that “Preaching is the Word of God which he himself has spoken; but God makes use, according to his good pleasure, of the ministry of a man who speaks to his fellow men, in God’s name, by means of a passage from Scripture. Such a man fulfils the vocation to which the Church has called him and, through his ministry, the Church is obedient to the mission entrusted to her. Preaching follows from the command given to the Church to serve the Word of God by means of a man called to this task. It is this man’s duty to proclaim to his fellow men what God himself has to say to them, by explaining, in his own words, a passage from Scripture which concerns them personally”. [3]

This is so patently obvious that for those who have received a charge to care for and feed the flock “of which the Holy Spirit has made (them) overseers” (Acts 20:28), one should question what on earth a Christian Pastor is doing occupying a pulpit Sunday by Sunday, if he or she is not fulfilling this sacred task? Paul declared to the Ephesian elders that he “had not hesitated to proclaim to them the whole counsel of God”. The same Apostle charged young Timothy to devote himself to the “public reading of scripture, to preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Later he would write to him again insisting on the primacy of this ministry “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). This is a solemn charge, which is not just common to Paul and Barth but is very much in evidence in the life of Christ, who went from town to town preaching the Kingdom of God. He “taught as one who had authority” Matthew records (7:29) and it was this authority that became such a strong distinguishing mark of His earthly ministry, such that the words that He spoke were “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Luke records that after opening the minds of the incredulous disciples, so that “they could understand the scriptures” when he appeared to them after His resurrection, He also charged them “..repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations”. Could anything be more all-embracing or lofty than to stand in the place of Christ and in His name “preach His unsearchable riches” (Ephesians 3:8)? Isn’t this what Paul is strongly alluding to in 2 Corinthians 5:18 & 19, when he declares that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation? We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God”. It was this kind of understanding of this sacred ministry that Barth had in mind, when he framed his view of the dignity of the divinely appointed preacher set apart for the ministry of the word, because as he himself declared in linking the act of preaching to God’s prior revelation “..the point of the event of preaching is God’s own speaking (Deus loquitur)..” (1991:47). We cannot reveal God to our hearers. That is His sovereign action, quite a classical Reformed view.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he reminded them in 2:17 in speaking of Christ that “He came and preached peace to you..”. The question we have to ask, which the Reverend David Jones first made plain to me in a preaching seminar many years ago, is when did Christ Himself ever preach to the Ephesians? The answer is through Paul (Acts 19:8-10). This is what Barth is saying and the sooner Christian preachers everywhere realise this, it will be all the better for their hearers, who will say as Cornelius said to the Apostle Peter “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (Acts 10:17).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol. I/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. The Epistle to the Romans, (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1933).

Barth, K. Evangelical Theology, (London, UK: Collins, 1963).

Barth, K. The Humanity of God, (Louisville, Westminister, John Knox Press, 1960).

Barth, K. Homiletics, (Louisville:Westminister, John Knox Press, 1991).

Barth, K. The Word of God and the Word of Man, (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1978).

Busch, E. The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology, (Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

Dorrien, G. Theology without Weapons, the Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2000).

Galli, M. ‘Karl Barth’, Christian History, 65 (VOL XIX/1) 2000:23-25.

Zahrnt, H. The Question of God: Protestant Theology in the Twentieth Century, (London: Collins, 1969).

[1] Barth to Adolf Keller, 20 May 1956, quoted in Busch, Karl Barth: His Life and Letters and Autobiographical Texts, London, 1976.

[2] K. Barth, Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen, Deutschland: …, 1927), IX.; cited in P. Lehrnann, ‘The Changing Course of a Corrective Theology’,  Theology Today (October, 1956), 334.

[3] Barth, K.  Prayer and Preaching http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/barth/prayerpreaching/prayerpreaching.c.htm

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