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.)

Bridging Two Worlds: the Church and the Academy

As I have written before, my favorite theology blog is Jason Goroncy’s Per Crucem ad Lucem. On his blog today, On the relation between the pulpit and the academy, he has a terrific quote from Charles Partee:

‘[I]f God speaks, and if God speaks in the church, then on some subjects sermons are not popularized products of more basic scholarly reflection. Rather scholarly reflection is an academized product of the more basic proclamation of the gospel … Thus, for the Christian community, sermons are a first-order, not a second-order, activity … As worship is more fundamental in the church than theology, so kerygmatic proclamation is more basic and often more pertinent than scholarly reflection’. – Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 46.

I couldn’t agree with this more. I have always had one foot in the local church and one foot in the academy. I served two congregations adjacent to seminaries, and we always had a number of faculty members in the pews. In my church in Bangor I was also the chaplain and sat with the faculty.

I did three term-long research fellowships during sabbaticals at Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews Universities. I tried to stay current with the leading theology and biblical journals and wrote articles and reviews for several of them. I participated in the Pastor-Theologian Program at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

I am comfortable in both worlds, at a lecture hall at Christ Church College, Oxford or at a planning meeting for Vacation Bible School. But my comfort is more that I am, by analogy, bilingual than that they speak the same language. They don’t.

The Partee quote gets at one of the problems that plagues theological education. Once upon a time, seminarians were trained by ministers who were also scholars, but had spent some time serving congregations. Their commitment was to the church and its ministries and they believed in a learned ministry as the means. They were bilingual in being able to speak both church and academic.

There are still wonderful teachers who share these commitments, but sadly, the secular academy is now the model that must be considered, with its emphasis on tenure and publishing. And, at least in America, members of the Academy who represent the theological disciplines are often viewed as quant relics of a bygone day. They don’t get big research grants like their more robust colleagues in the sciences.

This inferiority complex makes them strive harder to be like the cool kids, and the art of theology is then betrayed by a series of niche disciplines dominated by identity politics and other “happy little hyphens” to use Karl Barth’s term of derision.

What is worse is that there seeps into theological education the conceit that what happens in the academy is more important that what happens in the church, and students then become ministers who are ashamed of what should be their life’s joyful vocation.

I can tell you from experience there is a lot of apologizing going on in our pulpits. Instead of hearing the bracing Good News about Jesus Christ and his holy love one often gets an attack on the tradition or an exhortation to do and be better. Sin and death are not the enemy, Christianity itself is, at least the kind practiced by our benighted forbearers who didn’t get straightened out by three years at a divinity school.

And if a commitment to a learned ministry went along with this critical posture there might be something to be said for it. But often, it is the worst of both worlds, a distain for the local church and a laxity about keeping up with the genuine insights of the academy. So no wonder the laity often think of the academy as obscurantist, while at the same time the academy views the faithful as naive. The result is many a pastor who feels, not at home in two worlds, but like a stranger and exile in both.

I have suggested in the past that theological education be removed from the secular academy, but there are drawbacks to this, and it just isn’t going to happen. And there would be much lost if students were deprived of having interlocutors from other disciplines.

I wish I knew how to bridge the gap. I have known many great teachers who did it, such a Gabriel Fackre, Gerald Cragg, Colin Gunton, Alan P.F. Sell, N.T. Wright, George Hunsinger, and Brown Barr, to name but a few.

My New Testament Professor, Krister Stendahl, at Harvard, was a first-rate scholar and a Lutheran bishop. There is a story told about him in one of his preaching classes. One of his students climbed into the pulpit, and before delivering her sermon said, “The text for today comes from the Deutero-Pauline corpus.” Stendahl looked over the top of his glasses, as he was wont to do, and gently said, “The people have come to be fed. Do not give them the recipe!”

He knew that preaching was a first-order activity!

Where I Ruminate on Preaching to Folks Who Don’t Know Their Bible

In my thirty years as a preacher I often had the feeling, when confronted by the fact that even the most committted churchmen in my congregation had scant knowledge of the Bible, that I had just missed some golden age when the pews were chockablock with folks who read their  Bible daily. But listen to this from P.T. Forsyth’s Yale Beecher Lectures from 1907, published as Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind:

“The Bible may be his (the preacher’s) text book, but it has ceased to be the text book of his audience. The Bible is not read by the Christian, or even by the churchgoing public, as a means of grace greater even than churchgoing. Our people, as a rule, do not read the Bible, in any sense which makes its language more familiar and dear to them than the language of the novel or the press. And I will go so far as to confess that one of the chief miscalculations I have made in the course of my own ministerial career has been to speak to congregations as if they did know and use the Bible. I was bred where it was well known and loved, and I have spent my ministerial life where it is less so. And it has taken me so long to realize the fact that I still find it difficult to adjust myself to it. I am long accustomed to being called obscure by many whose mental habits and interests are only literary, who have felt but a languid interest in the final questions of the soul as the New Testament stirs them, who treat sin as but lapse, God’s grace as if it were but love, and His love as if it were but paternal kindness.”

Does that strike a chord with any of you preachers?

Lifelines

A lifeline is literally a rope tossed to a drowning person, and figuratively something that provides escape from a dire situation. Sometimes we get thrown theological and intellectual lifelines!

One of the persistent features of my three plus decades in ministry has been my conviction that a pastor must be a theologian, and my own experience as a pastor-theologian has included several salient moments when I was thrown a theological life-line enabling me to carry on my work.

One was certainly in my first parish, where at twenty-six I was called to preach to two small congregations in rural Maine. After using up most of my seminary material in about a month the question loomed, what shall I say now?

To complicate matters, one of my congregations had a committed group of warm-hearted Jesus Freaks (this was 1975) who lamentably knew nothing about Paul Tillich’s “ground of all Being” or “ultimate concern,”and insisted on talking about matters liked being saved and the rapture. I felt like I had been dropped off on the far side of the moon, and often went back to my empty parsonage to pray and wonder if I was really a Christian.

Early lifelines came from books like Helmut Thielicke’s “Waiting Father” and “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” The first real rescuing lifeline was Karl Barth. A neighboring young pastor, Charlie Ford (about 25 miles away) had just returned from Bonn after working on a Ph. D. in New Testament. We would meet and read Karl Barth and study Greek.

Here was a towering intellect taking the tradition seriously, and now I finally had a common tongue to speak with my pietist friends of sin and grace, of righteousness and salvation. The first Barth I read was not the massive “Church Dogmatics,” but the short work, “Word of God and Word of Man,” translated and edited by Douglas Horton.

Horton’s preface includes his own lifeline narrative of seeing the little book at the Harvard Divinity School library and reading it in German. Horton found this “strange new world” a powerful alternative to the dry desiccated humanism in which he had been trained.

Another lifeline narrative comes from my friend Browne Barr, who died on February 1 of this year at 91. Browne had been a homiletics teacher at Yale, and for many years in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s he was the pastor of the big UCC church in Berkeley, California, where he was known for his engaging attention to both Word and World.

In the 1981 Pickwick Press reprint of P. T. Forsyth’s 1907 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, entitled Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Browne wrote an essay called “The Preacher’s Theologian.”

A generation after Douglas Horton, Browne Barr tells a similar tale. The setting this time is not a divinity school library, but his recently deceased predecessor’s study in the old parsonage where Browne, a young minister, comes across Forsyth’s book on preaching.

It is 1944, and as he puts it, “In Europe the hinge of history had not yet yet shown which way it was going to swing its door.”Reared and trained after the First World War on prohibition, pacifism, and “the integration of personality” he wondered what he would preach on his first Sunday. It was hard to say much about Christian pacifism when most of the men were at war. “The integration of personality? It was also hard to say much about that to a congregation absorbed with news of the nightly bombing of London and weary with their work on airplane propellors and parachute cloth. They really appeared fairly well integrated.”

Browne Barr’s lifeline was P. T. Forsyth, 33 years dead, but whose words on preaching still carried the ring of truth. And over the decades how many of us have had this same lifeline thrown to us, so that at difficult times in our ministry we were put in touch with the living Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy God he called Father?