Karl Barth on “What is Preaching?”

In addition to various places in his monumental and magisterial 14 volume Church Dogmatics, where Karl Barth addresses preaching directly, he also left us a fine little book on homiletics and some anthologies of sermons. With these in hand we may explore his views on preaching.

What is preaching? That is the question that preoccupies Barth throughout Homiletics (Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1991.) Barth begins the book with what is really an extended essay on the history of eighteenth and nineteenth century German hermeneutics, entitled “The Nature of the Sermon: A Historical and Dogmatic Sketch.” He critically examines in turn the theories of David Hollaz, Frederich Scleiermacher, Alexandre Vinet, Christian Palmer, C.I. Nitzsch, Johannes Bauer (with a surly nod at Albrecht Ritschl), Karl Fezer, and Leonhard Fendt. Let us look at each in turn and see the evolution which sets the stage for Barth’s own definition of preaching.

Hollaz was an orthodox dogmatician whose definition of the two–fold task of preaching (investigation and application of the text) raises questions of form for Barth. Schleiermacher, the most brilliant theological exponent of the new Romanticism, understood preaching as the articulation of the shared spirituality (as some might say today) of the congregation. The preacher . . .“steps forward to project his innermost self as a subject of shared observation that has been prompted by God, in order to lead them to the sphere of religion, where they feel at home so that he can instill his sacred feelings: He expresses divinity, while in holy silence the congregation follows his inspired speech.” (From On Religion, quoted in Barth on p. 23.) Barth rightly asks whether “the self–presentation of the pious feelings of the congregation is really preaching as Schleiermacher thinks?” (p. 25)

We see the next unfortunate and inevitable mutation in the evolution of homiletics in the theories of Vinet, a disciple of Schleiermacher, who believed preaching to be a special sort of rhetorical speech whose decisive character was its “spiritual”(that word again) content, and who posited (logically enough based on his assumptions) that a biblical text does not have to be the basis for such discourse.

The next theorist, Christian Palmer defines the task thus: “To preach is by living witness, and in the name of God, to offer the salvation which appeared and is present for human beings in the person and work of Christ.” Barth thinks Palmer claims too much for the “living witness,”that is, the preacher. Palmer, like Hollaz and Schleiermacher, allows the preacher to maintain control over what is proclaimed. To Barth “the offer of salvation” sounds too sacramental and “overmuch is ascribed here to the preacher.”

Barth goes on to commend many features of the theories of C. I. Nitzsch, whose definition is: “A sermon is the ongoing proclamation of the gospel for the edification of the congregation of the Lord, a proclamation of the word of God through texts of holy scripture which take place in a living relationship to contemporary circumstances through called witnesses.” (p 27). Barth likes the fact that Nitzsch, unlike Schleiermacher, who had dissolved the distinction between preacher and congregation and preacher and subject matter, understands that the subject matter of preaching is different from humanity “in the plight from which it has to be rescued.” (p 29) But Nitzsch falters when he ascribes some special religious attitude to the preacher as a requisite part of preaching.

Barth dismisses Johannes Bauer as a regression from Nitzsch to the total subjectivism typical of this period under the spell of Ritschl, Troelsch, and the history of religion school.

If you will pardon a personal digression, it was in reading this material that I was reminded once again how ill-prepared I was for preaching and pastoring, not to mention for the dialogue with fundamentalism that began my ministry, by my theological education. That education was informed on one side by the therapeutic verities of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) (certainly helpful in certain contexts) and on the other side by the critical social theory of James Luther Adams and Max Stackhouse (also helpful in many contexts), which had a direct genealogical line from Troeslch. I was given psychology and sociology, but no theology worthy of the name, and certainly no handle on what it meant to be a preacher. My clergy mentor admonished me at my ordination to be a “minister of the Word of God” but it was years of intellectual struggle before I had a clue as to what that meant.

To return to Barth’s history of preaching we come to Karl Fezer. He is the first of the theorists to abandon the principle of the superiority of the preacher over the subject matter and Barth, after some small criticisms, is most approving. For Fezer, God is now the subject of the process. Fezer understands that God gives us himself in the work of scripture, and this notion is centered on the atonement.

Leonhard Fendt, earns some praise from Barth because his notion of preaching, like Fezer’s but unlike Bauer’s, takes God seriously. Barth breaks Fendt’s definition down into nine constitutive elements.

Barth then offers his own definition in two formulas which are to be in dialectical relationship to one another:

1. Preaching is the Word of God which he himself speaks, claiming for the purpose the exposition of a biblical text in free human words that are relevant to contemporaries by those that are called to do this in the church that is obedient to its commission.

2. Preaching is the attempt enjoined upon the church to serve God’s own Word, through one who is called thereto, by expounding a biblical text in human words and making it relevant to contemporaries in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.

In both the history of the theories of preaching that he offers and in his definition of preaching, Barth is attempting to identify preaching that, as he said of Palmer, “takes God seriously” as the subject of preaching, that is, as the one who addresses both the preacher and the congregation through scripture.

It is interesting to read Barth’s anthology of sermons Call for God (Harper Collins Publishers, 1993) to see examples of how Barth’s theory of preaching takes shape in actual sermons. In reading them I had, as I have had before when reading Barth, the sensation of glimpsing a different world, the “strange new world of the Bible” as Barth once called it (in The Word of God and The Word of Man) and of being addressed very simply by a different word than the world speaks, and realizing it isn’t just a word, but the Word of God.

In Barth’s sermons “religion” isn’t explained or taught, rather the hearers are addressed by the God who both speaks and acts in his Word. For example in the sermon “What Remains” he tells about the nature of the address that confronts us in the scriptures. He says, “But let us ask once more; What kind of word is it? Where is it decisively spoken in such a way that we can hear it? I will try once more to answer quite simply: God has said his Word simply by doing what it says. What happened was that he appeared and worked and acted in our midst as our God.” (p. 60.) Here we see Barth work out in sermons that which we see worked out in the Church Dogmatics, the identification of revelation with event. “ . . . his Word tells us what he has done. It is no mere word. It is loud and clearly perceptible to everyone in the Christmas event . . .” (p. 60.)

Barth’s theology has been the single most significant influence (besides scripture) on my ministry . It may well have allowed me to remain a minister at some key junctures in my many years in ministry. As a struggling believer I found great solace and also great challenge when I ceased to be an observer of religion and was faced with the personal question of my own faith as one addressed by God. As a newly-minted minister I found the task of weekly preaching to be terribly agonizing. It was then I started reading Barth, beginning with the little book The Word of God and the Word of Man. Clearly the questions Barth was asking were mine as well, “What is preaching?” and “where does the preacher derives his or her authority?” His critique of Schleiermacher and theological liberalism spoke to my own sense of the bankruptcy of my liberal religious background and much of my theological education, which had understood “religion” (whatever that is) to be some special sensibility that humans have that needs to be nurtured and cultivated and that in some sense is identical to our highest aspirations and deepest emotions.

Reading Barth I was able to gain again the joy of discovery of a living God that is “God with us”, a joy that I had known as a child, but was distilled out of me by years of exposure to the post-enlightenment world-view of my education, not least by Post-Bultmannian seminary professors for whom texts were seen more as the pieces and parts of a puzzle and not a Word of Life. I have to say that reading Barth right out of seminary was tantamount to a conversion. Ever since then my preaching has been that of one who stands under the Word of God, rather than as a religious expert that dispenses divine truth or sings the lyrical theism of liberal religion. Reading texts this way has enabled me to develop what Paul Ricouer has described as “a second naivete.”

One can see in both Barth books that preaching means being addressed by texts, and then by grace finding in the struggle with the text that one is addressed by God. I have found great help in sorting out the authority question by a simple reflection on Barth’s threefold understanding of the Word of God: the written word of scripture, the spoken word of preaching, and the Word of God, Jesus Christ. I often begin my sermons with the following prayer: “Gracious God, we pray that through the written word, and through the spoken word, we may behold the living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Hear an example of how Barth addresses the hearers in this portion of the sermon “What Remains”: “Whoever does the will of God—and that means whoever hears the Word of God and holds fast to it as he listens—whoever allows what it creates within him to take root and grow—that is a little faith, a little hope, a little love—such a man remains at this moment and will remain too forever.” (p. 65) Here in one sentence is promise, exhortation, ethics, humility, and hope.

I think Barth’s approach to preaching and the hermeneutic that lies behind it have revolutionary implications for the practice of ministry in local congregations. It calls into question the prevailing therapeutic and managerial models of local church life, and invites ministers and congregations to take themselves seriously as those who are addressed by God in his Word. And more than addressed, congregations are constituted, called, gathered, sustained, empowered, in fact have no authentic life of their own apart from the life given them by God in his Word. To take such a God seriously demands a congregation that studies scripture in all seasons, that takes prayer seriously, that risks putting an end to “the sin of bustle” (the phrase is P.T. Forsyth’s) so that they might hearken to the particular call of God to their time and place.

Such a community and such ministers will take sermon preparation seriously as demanding time, study, research, prayer and a kind of deep reflection impossible for the modern pastor whose vocation is conceptualized in professional terms as a primary caregiver. One piece I have added to my sermon preparation over the years is the lectionary bible study with members of the congregation. When we sit down together to struggle with the texts new understandings emerge, new insights into the text are shared. In addition the community raises the context to provide the relevance of which Barth speaks in his definition of preaching as . . .“expounding a biblical text and making it relevant to contemporaries. . .” But the most important piece of that definition is the next phrase: “in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.” ( p. 44) That is the key to authentic Christian preaching.

(These reflections are based on a paper I submitted during my doctoral studies to Professor George Hunsinger at the Bangor Theological Seminary at Hanover, NH, on February 8, 1993.)

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