The open situation of proclamation

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In the third chapter of Homiletics by Karl Barth (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, 124-5) in the chapter on The actual preparation of the sermon, subsection 4. The unity of the sermon, Barth, in a discussion on the introduction to a sermon, is at pains to emphasise, as one would expect, that any contact that is made between the preacher and the hearer is ‘by the miracle of God from on high’. ‘When the Word of God has found an entrance into a person, then God has worked the miracle, he alone, without any preparation or assistance of ours’. He goes on to say ‘We have simply to adopt the attitude of the messenger who does not have to create a mood for the message. No doubt all this seems to be wildly destructive of the little garden of our sermon out of which we had hoped to pluck so many blooms!’

In the following paragraph he emphasises his point once again:

Preaching cannot try to relate to the divine within us. The miracle must always take place from above. The human listener must be seen and addressed as Adam after the fall, but in the light of the fact that this listener has been called in Christ by baptism. In baptism, however, we have received only the promise, never a point of contact. We are set under the sign of this promise because the saying in John 3:16 is given to every human creature as a new foundation – that all should not perish. This applies even to the most depraved, even to criminals and murderers. A reference to this confidence that on the basis of baptism a miracle has happened to us is the best introduction to every sermon. The fact that we are not speaking to people who are outside but inside will be the irresistible force that the sermon exerts when God grants his grace to this end. What we have here is nothing short of a miracle, but it is the promised miracle. That we humans may speak of this is an incredible thing, and yet it is no more than simple service. We have simply to assume the attitude of a messenger who has something to say. We have no need to build a slowly ascending ramp, for there is no height that we have to reach. No! Something has to come down from above. And this can happen only when the Bible speaks from the very outset. We have then done what we could’.

This is a small extract from the revision of Barth’s original lectures given at a seminar which he conducted in Bonn in 1932 and again in in 1933 under the title of “Exercises in Sermon Preparation”. David Buttrick in his foreword says that the ‘lectures were edited in consultation with Barth in 1965’ (p7). A comparison of the passage above with the original shows that Barth wanted to make his point quite strongly as he underlined his view of what Heinz Zahrnt (not uncritically it needs to be remembered) saw in Barth as the

“The fundamental openness of the number of the elect….reflected in the ‘open situation of proclamation.’ Consequently, Barth answers the charge that he teaches an Apokatastasis by constantly referring to preaching: The Church’s mission is not to define and contemplate the divine choice, but to preach it, thereby perfecting the destination of the elect. Predestination is not an object for inquiry and discursive description, but for faith and personal address: ‘It is meant for you!’ ( Zahrnt, Heinz. The Question of God, Protestant Theology in the Twentieth Century. London: Collins, 1969, 110).

Michael O’Neil of Vose Seminary in Perth, Western Seminary, in his excellent essay in the second edition of “Election, Barth and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election” entitled “The Light of the Gospel: Election and Proclamation” discusses the fact that both Maury and Barth shared a pastoral and homiletical orientation in their respective theologies. After an initial discussion of this motif in Barth he concludes that

‘The pastoral and homiletical orientation of Barth’s doctrine is explicit …..His reconstruction of the Reformed doctrine serves to clarify the identity and nature of the electing God and in so doing to purge the doctrine not only of its distorted vision of an arbitrary and even tyrannical God, but to proclaim ever more clearly the gracious initiative of this God who has chosen and claimed us as his own and at great cost to himself. By these moves Barth sought to reclaim and protect the proclamation of the gospel precisely as gospel, as “the very essence of all good news.”’

O’Neil also makes a strong case for this open proclamation:

‘Barth insists that the content of the proclamation is the objectivity of Christ’s atonement, with specific application being pressed upon the individual hearer, thus encountering them with the divine claim upon their lives and calling for a positive response from them in the light of the message proclaimed.[1] On the grounds of the election of grace in Jesus Christ none are to be considered rejected and the summons to faith is to be issued to all with undiluted strength’.

He concludes in speaking of the proclamation of the ‘free grace of God’ that

‘…in the election of Jesus Christ there are none who are not chosen, none that is, who are rejected. There are none for whom Christ did not die, and none whose sins have not been taken away. And if we should worry that such proclamation is too generous, too one-sided; and if we should worry that such proclamation might lead us toward a doctrine of apokatastasis, Barth will only reply,

Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might someday prove to be empty! But if the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides, something else has to be said: that whoever and wherever he may be, man is not only reached and blessed by grace, but in one way or another he is taken by grace into its service. Grace calls us into the decision of faith. Grace allows us no idleness, no neutrality, no standing aside.[2]

[1]  One of the few interpreters to make the connection between Barth’s universalistic statements and proclamation is John Colwell who insists that “we must recognise that it is not Barth’s intention in these passages to speculate concerning the ultimate destiny of each individual but rather to emphasise and define the inclusive nature of the church’s witness to each individual.” See John Colwell, “The Contemporaneity of the Divine Decision: Reflections on Barth’s Denial of ‘Universalism’,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. N. M. de S. Cameron (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 147.

[2]  Barth, God Here and Now. Translated by Paul M. van Buren. 2003 Classics ed. London: Routledge, 1964, 42.

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