Thursday, May 28, 2015

Academy of Parish Clergy Books of the Year for 2014 (Part 1)

I recently returned from the Academy of Parish Clergy's annual conference which met this year at the beautiful Bishop Claggett Center in Buckeystown, Maryland. The Academy of Parish Clergy is a small but growing collection of pastors, chaplains, and pastoral care givers of all stripes who seek growth towards greater excellence ministry. APC members value honest and affirming dialogue, collegiality and continued enhancement of pastoral skills and competency, all directed towards identifying and addressing the spiritual needs and welfare of their communities. You can find more information at the Academy's website: http://apclergy.org/


I joined the organization little over three years ago, and this year found myself as the chairperson for the APC's Parish Ministry Books of the Year selection committee. The Academy selects a list of the top ten books we consider to be of great value to women and men engaged in pastoral ministry, and if read, we believe will provide tangible benefit in ministry. Amongst this list is a book that we recognize as our Book of the Year and a book that we recognize as the Reference Book of the Year. The books selected range in wide variety from academic theological works to spiritual memoirs, from practical "how to's" to biblical commentaries, from works of church history to books on pastoral counseling. What we are looking for is not simply ground breaking theological insight, but rather works that can benefit parish clergy as they serve in their wide ministerial contexts.

I want to thank Intervarsity Press, Baker Press, Eerdmans, Westminster John Knox Press, Energion Press, HarperOne and Orbis Books for contributing books for consideration. I will be chairing the selection committee again next year, so if any of y'all reading this can think of any books published in 2015 that you think we should consider, please feel free to be in contact.

Below you will find our list of books, as well as the citation read at our conference explaining the reasoning behind their selection.

Sensing the Scriptures: Aminadab's Chariot and the Predicament of Biblical Interpretation, by Karlfried Froehlich. Published by Eerdmans. Amazon Link

This book, written by a grand old man of the guild of Church Historians, is a thrilling call to arms to read and interpret scripture creatively. He does so, not exactly be reclaiming the four fold sense of scripture as mastered by the medieval exegetes (the literal, the allegorical, the tropological, and the anagogical) but by showing the many beautiful, challenging, enlightening, interpretations one can get from the text through this method. He employs the image of Aminadab's chariot, an image most likely unfamiliar to most of us by well known to the our brothers and sisters in Europe during the middle ages. If you have a moment, check out Song of Songs 6:12--it is one the most notoriously challenging verses to translate in all of scripture--from here, medieval exegetes saw a man named Aminadab's chariot being drawn by four horses--the chariot was seen to be the Bible, the horses the fourfold method of interpretation. He challenges pastors, theologians, exegetes et al, to interpret boldly or not interpret at all. In closing this brief summary, I quote Dr. Froehlich on the necessity of bold interpretation in reading, preaching, and teaching scripture, "The results are dangerously speculative; every interpreter goes out on a limb, and each interpretation is vulnerable to criticism. But danger can also be both fascinating and attractive. It is amazing to watch the logic: the more intractable the textual problem, the greater the zeal and creativity applied to it. After all, biblical interpretation means and always has meant exercising one's imagination. We sometimes forget this simple truth. The goal of interpretation is not to remove dangers, but to face them squarely--and then to go out daringly on a limb." Maybe I'm just a big Bible nerd, but these words gets me excited get me excited to go out and interpret!

Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine, by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Published by Westminster John Knox Press. Amazon Link

On surface, this may seem like too complex a book of theology to recommend to Parish pastors, but after reading it closely our three readers on the selection committee concluded that it is an important book that we highly commend to all pastors. Vanhoozer creatively ties our understanding of the uniqueness of Christian doctrine, i.e., "its single-minded and single-hearted focus on knowing God and oneself in Jesus Christ and in directing disciples to demonstrate their understanding of this ultimate reality," with dramatic theory. The key word here in understanding Vanhoozer's understanding of doctrine as related to dramatic theory is "demonstrate." Christian doctrine grows disciples by teaching us to perceive, name, and act in ways that demonstrate the reality of the gospel, speaking and showing what is "in Christ." What sets Christian disciples apart in our world is not simply the content of our belief but rather how we relate to it. Doctrine does more than state facts, it offers interpretive frameworks. So what Vanhoozer does is suggest that we think of theology like we think of stage directions. If, to quote Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," then theology, like stage directions, guide us through our performance of life in relation to our creative, redeeming God revealed to us in the story of God's people Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ.

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today, by Adam Hamilton. Published by HarperOne. Amazon Link

This book was selected to our top ten simply because it is the best single volume introduction to the bible designed to speak to parishioners and their families that we have come across. Hamilton, whom you might be aware is the pastor of a very large United Methodist congregation, works his way through the entire story of scripture in a highly readable prose. He's a pastor, not simply an academic, and that comes across. He divides the book into two, one going into the nature of scripture and questions about this nature, "Is the Bible inspired? How does God speak to and through us?", and two, "Making Sense of the Bible's Challenging Passages," going in depth on to the question as to whether Adam and Eve were real people, what to do with the books of Joshua and Judges, the questions over homosexuality and the Bible, and perhaps a little bit lighter but no less serious for some of our younger folks in church, "Is it okay to get a tattoo?” The Bible is by far the world's best selling, most read, and perhaps most loved book. But it is also one of the most confusing--Pastor Adam is a good guide through it, and we recommend his book to pastors to share with their congregants.

Fail, by J. R. Briggs. Published by Intervarsity Press Amazon Link

It is a known fact but an avoided conversation topic among pastors that they will encounter failure during their years of ministry. Briggs takes readers through a process of faithfully overcoming the shame, loneliness, and desire to flee that emerges in the midst of failure, towards the acceptance and restoration that can come as a result of failure. With Paul and Jesus as models, readers move toward freedom from the fear of and experience of failure. Along with practical advice, the author reminds Christian pastors that the God they worship gracious God is there to love, forgive, restore and guide in, through, and in despite of failure.

The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, by Michael F. Bird. Published by Eerdmans. Amazon Link

In one volume Bird has provided a well-researched examination of the Gospels including their historicity and the relationship of oral tradition to written document. There is good discussion of sources and thoughtful citation of quality Biblical scholarship. While this book would be appropriate as a seminary text, its compact clarity makes it an excellent resource for pastors who wish to prepare a sermon series or an adult education class on the Gospels, or who wish to answer lucidly questions from thoughtful church members.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2:17–3:3

Malachi 2.17–3.3

[17] You have wearied the LORD with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?” [3.1] “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. [2] But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. [3] He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.

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COMMENTARY: In finishing up chapter two, Calvin fixates on the logic at work in the imagined responses on the part of the Jewish leadership to the criticisms made by Malachi. They claim that either God approves of those who do evil—i.e., those who afflict the Jewish people and that Malachi claims as agents of divine judgment—or that God is absent. Furthermore, Calvin understands them to imply by this charge of God’s absence that God in fact does not exist: “they intimate that there is no God, for he cannot exist without exercising judgment” (563). Calvin follows up with this a few pages later, giving the Jewish leaders some credit for this line of thinking insofar as it is true “that there is no God, except he be the judge of the world; for he cannot divest himself of his office without denying himself” (566). This language of “office” puts me in mind of the munus triplex - the threefold designation of Christ’s office as “prophet,” “priest,” and “king” that was central to Calvin’s christology and became something of a defining feature of Reformed theology. In Calvin, then, we get a very close identification between God (and Christ’s) being and God’s (and Christ’s) roles, or tasks, or functions, so much so that these functions become the expressions of God’s being to such an extent that to deny the function is to deny the being.

But, of course, God has not ceased to function as the world’s judge, and so God has not ceased to exist. On Calvin’s reading, the Jewish leaders imagined here make the regrettable mistake of thinking that just because God isn’t seen to punish their enemies, it means that God has ceased to act as judge. In fact, Calvin reads Malachi as asserting that God maintains God’s office of judge precisely by judging these Jewish leaders. So Calvin concludes this line of thought by saying: “We hence learn that they did not complain through zeal for what was right, but because they would have God bound to them to undertake their cause like earthly patrons” (565). Of course, this mistake continues to be frequently made even in our own time.

Calvin’s comments on the first verses of chapter three have failed to inspire me. Suffice it to say that Calvin understands the “messenger” in verse 1 as Jesus (via a connection to David, who is a “type” of Christ [569]), he reads Malachi as speaking ironically in suggesting that the Jewish leaders desire his arrival [570], he conceptualizes the distinction between the godly and the ungodly both in terms of the former desiring Christ’s coming [571] and in terms of the former being purified by the fire of God’s judgment while the latter are simply consumed [573].

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since we are by nature so prone to rash judgment, we may learn to submit to thee, and so quietly to acquiesce in thy judgments, that we may patiently bear whatever chastisements thou mayest daily allot to us, and not doubt but that all is done for our wellbeing, and never murmur against thee, but give thee the glory in all our adversities; and may we so labour to mortify our flesh, that by denying ourselves we may ever avow thee to be the only true God, and a just avenger, and our Father, and that thus renouncing ourselves, we may yet never depart from the purity of thy word, and be thus retained under thy yoke, until we shall at length attain that liberty which has been procured for us by thine only-begotten Son. – Amen.

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Saturday, May 09, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Fornight?!?!?! Who comes up with this stuff?

*nervous cough

Well, gentle readers, I’m deeply chagrinned to say that it has been over two months since the last link post. I know. I know. You don’t have to tell me. I’m as shocked as you are! But there we are. And here we are, back with another set of links for you to savor; another opportunity for you to sift the flood waters of the theo-blogosphere.

But before we get to the links, I have a couple announcements. First, I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that my book - The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth - has now been reviewed on the Center for Barth studies website. So you’ll want to check that out. [*wink, wink; nudge, nudge]

Second, I’d like to highlight a new program that I learned about recently.
“The Davenant Latin Institute aims to equip today’s seminarians, graduate students, and teachers with the competency to unearth these treasures, reading them in the original and perhaps even translating them for others to enjoy. We will be offering a program of online courses, both introductory and advanced, equipping students with basic Latin reading competence and, for those that desire, the skills they need to engage with and translate some of the most difficult early modern theological texts.”
This program sounds really neat, and I’m even tempted to sign up myself. There are so many early modern Reformed scholastic texts that I would like to access more easily… In any case, if you want to learn theological Latin, this is an option.

Alright – on to the links! As usual, we’ll start with what’s been happening here at DET.


And now, here are some links from around the interwebs:


I dare say that these will keep you busy for a while!

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Dying in the Midst of Prayer

She died as I was praying for her. Three days earlier, she cried as I prayed for her. But today she died.


The patient was a 65-year-old woman — one year older than my mother and father. She had been sick for quite a while, but no one expected her to die, at least not now, not here, not in the hospital. She had been on the general medicine floor for little less than a week. She came in confused, and never did shake the sense that she wasn't supposed to be there. She told me repeatedly in my visits with her that all she wanted was “to go home,” that her daughter “means well, but by forcing me to be here she is hurting me. I want to go home.” Sometimes when I would pop by to say hello she would be on the phone, tears flying down in agony, “I want to go home.”

Three days before she died I met her. I held her hand and I listened to her story. She told me about her family, how she loved them but that she was puzzled as to why they were forcing her to be in the hospital. This was her opinion. She by her own admission was out of sorts and apologized frequently. She repeated herself often, her mind simply befuddled. I would just nod, smile, and listen ever closely. She told me she loved to sing. I told her that I would come back later and sing a hymn with her. She told me she loved to read scripture. I told her I would come back later and read the Bible with her. And then I held her hand, and we prayed.

I don’t remember exactly what we prayed for. God’s presence. God’s peace. To go home. At one point, I invited the patient to pray however she would like and she got lost in her words. I simply repeated everything she said back to her, so as to pray her prayer. I don’t think she noticed. She was gone. She was caught up in the Spirit. She was afraid. But she cast her fear on God. And it was beautiful. Then I said “amen,” she thanked me, and I said I would return. And I did return.

On early Friday morning this patient had a code blue due to internal bleeding that wouldn't stop. Her family, the family who she had begged to come release her from the hospital, had arrived by that afternoon. I was on call that day, and received a page from decedent care letting me know that she was expected to die. I hustled to ICU, and met a tortured family gathered at the bedside. I introduced myself. We stood in silence. I mentioned that the patient had told me that she loved to sing. The daughter’s eyes lit up — she had a recent recording of her mother singing. She played it on her phone, holding the sound next to her mother’s ear. The song was called “Coming Home.” The song finished. I offered to pray. I began to pray. And then she died.

* * *

I wrote this brief reflection as part of my intensive Clinical Pastoral Education experience that all aspiring PC(USA) pastors are required to fulfill. One thing that CPE illustrated for me was the necessity of Christians to be truly present with those who surround them in all instances. But what happens when the completely unexpected occurs? What do we do as pastors, as theologians, as Christians? How do we continue to pray? This particular visit is one that has stuck with me. The coincidence of the woman dying as I prayed deeply spooked me, the family and the nurses as we stood around the bedside. After she died, the family cried, but the nurses and I stood in stunned silence. We knew she was dying, but her heartbeat had been steady. It truly appeared to all present that she was waiting for a prayer to set her free to cross over to Jordan. The family and the health professionals looked to me for something, anything, but honestly, I got nothing. So we all stood in silence. And marveled at how she died in the midst of a prayer.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Christology and Creation: A Concluding Thought from Osborn

Well, gentle readers, here we are. I’ve enjoyed sharing with you some of the bits of Osborn’s book that most interested me and sparked my mind while I read it. I hope that you’ll take the time to read through it for yourself. But all good things must come to an end. So now I want to let you all in on what I think is perhaps the most damning criticism that Osborn makes of “literalist” ways of thinking about creation. That criticism is this: there is “nothing intrinsically christological” in such a doctrine of creation.

Ready to hear more? I hope so. As always, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
One striking implication of biblical literalism is that Genesis tells us everything we need to know about God’s way of creating without any reference whatsoever to the Christ of the New Testament. God’s stupendous might, God’s total control, God’s complete domination of the creation by sheer fiat – such are the divine attributes that most impress the literalist and fundamentalist religious imagination when they open the book of Genesis. Yet there is in fact nothing intrinsically christological in these “plain” reading approaches to Genesis 1 or in the sorts of “scientific” and lexical arguments most often used to advance them. One can be a strict literalist on Genesis without possessing a trinitarian understanding of the divine nature and without any reference to the God who walked among us, whose power and glory are paradoxically revealed in his weakness and agony. (159-160)
Now, it may be that you – gentle reader – reacted upon reading this in the same way that I do, namely, by thinking to yourself: “That’s all well and good, but say something about what a christological doctrine of creation would look like!” Alas, Osborn does not elaborate such a thing at length. He does, however, expand upon his criticisms here in a more particular way vis-à-vis the standard Adam / Christ typology, especially through engagement with the work of Conor Cunningham.
We must learn to read Genesis in radically christocentric theological terms rather than as mere historical chronicle. For orthodox Christianity, Cunningham points out, it is not Adam but Christ who is the first true human, the axis mundi by whom we must now reenvision all that came before as well as all that comes after. Some have insisted that without a historical Adam the life, death and resurrection of the historical Jesus would be devoid of meaning. But this claim amounts to a denial . . . of the centrality of Christ; for it gives the fallen Adam of Genesis an interpretive primacy over the Jesus of history that Paul and the Gospel writers do not allow. For disciples of Christ, it is only in Christ that the ancient story of human origins and destiny can be rightly understood – not the other way around. We do not read the story of Christ “Adamically.” We reread the story of Adam christologically in the light of the second Adam who is also the first Adam, the first fully human being . . . The New Testament proclamation is not that the Adam of Hebrew Scripture must now be greatly elevated as the father of humankind les Christ have died a pointless death. It is that He who comes last is first. The Christian euangelion is not an accentuation or amplification but, in a real sense, a subversion of the first Adam’s theological and historical significance (whether or not historical Adam existed). It is only through the kenosis of Christ . . . that our eyes have at last been opened to the real nature of good and evil for the first time. The cross is at once the two trees in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. When Christ cries, “It is finished” on Easter Friday, the creation of the world is at last completed. . . . Genesis is not science or journalism but prophecy. And it is by entering into Christ’s way of self-emptying love . . . that we bear witness to this hope: that one day we will also share in our Lord’s resurrection and glorification. Only then will Christ be all in all. (164-65)

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 2)

[B]y this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. -- Matt 14:24 (KJV)

What was supposed to be a brief review of a short book is turning into a persistent preoccupation and a burgeoning series of posts, with no immediate end in site. (Thanks for your indulgence, gentle readers.)
I recently told my bus-commuting companion I had become fascinated by a sermon that Karl Barth preached in Bremen, Germany in 1935, after the National Socialists came to power and had taken over the state churches (See Barth, The Word).

I explained that I have been combing through this sermon and reviewing the details of Barth's life and the German Church struggle to situate this piece in its historical context, and that I have been trying to discern the interconnections between scriptural text and lived context. Though he is not a theologian and is no longer a Christian, my friend is adept at modern European history and tracked my train of thought easily. He remarked that the struggles of the fledgling Confessing Church resistance brought to mind the Gospel story where Jesus walks across the choppy lake of Galilee to join his disciples, terrified and huddled in a boat.

I had never told my friend that that was precisely the text Barth used for his sermon.

* * *

In what way does a particular biblical text become "relevant" within a concrete life situation (Sitz im Leben) through the mediation of a sermon? In the hermeneutical event where text and context meet -- if I may vamp on the old cliche -- which is the tail and which is the dog? A sermon by Karl Barth, from the period when he had just rebooted his dogmatic theology might seem like an unpromising place to explore such questions. After all, this was the time when Barth was beginning most explicitly to press the notion that proclamation and dogmatics, properly conceived, were to be driven by the free event of divine revelation rather than apologetic exigencies; the Word speaks to the world. In that vein, some commentators seem to take at face value Karl Barth's claim that, while Germany and Europe as a whole were cascading toward cataclysm during the early 1930s, his primary response was to preach, teach and write "as if nothing had happened." Interpreters such as William Willimon defend him on this score (see my previous post). To be sure, Barth believed that such a disciplined focus would best equip the church to meet the challenges of the day with courage and resolve. Not everyone is satisfied by this as a practical stance, however. So George Buttrick, in his forward to Barth's Homiletics, writes:

Perhaps the most disturbing of Barth's polemics [in this work] is his attack on relevance." For example, he regrets ever having mentioned World War I in his sermons (p. 9).

In his preface to the same work, Geoffrey Bromiley states the issue with some subtlety: "His practical counsel, especially the plea for expository preaching and his polemic against theme preaching, testifies to his basic confidence in the normative prophetic and apostolic witness and his belief that closeness to life, important though it is in the sermon, must not be at the cost of closeness to the text" (ibid, p. 14).

So does this mean, then, that text subsumes context, much as a postliberal writing today might frame the matter? If we turn to Barth's own lectures on preaching (1932-1933), and hope to find there a defense of the sermon as a catalyst for socio-political activism and resistance, we will be disappointed. He writes:

The church is not a tool to uphold the world or to further its progress. It is not an instrument to serve either what is old or what is new. The church and preaching are not ambulances on the battlefield of life. Preaching must not attempt to set up an ideal community, whether of soul or heart or spirit (Homiletics, p. 63).

* * *
Thirty years later, at the end of his academic career, Barth would grasp hands with Martin Luther King Jr. in a famous photo op. What would the Barth of the Bonn years (1930-1935) have made of King's masterful deployment of preaching to indoctrinate protesters in the practice of non-violent resistance -- or of his invocation of the prophet Amos to spur passage of civil rights legislation? Certainly, one could say many more things on this question, if space allowed. One obvious place to start would be to review Barth's own organizing activities with the Confessing Church in the months leading up to his expulsion from his academic post in 1935 (I will return to this fascinating topic in my next post).

For now, suffice it to say I don't think it is reasonable to suggest his views of theology and preaching are meant to enable escapism, quietism or diffidence toward social struggles. Rather, I think, the issue for him is one of vocation: The preacher and theologian best serve the needs of the world best by fulfilling the concrete demands of their callings. Barth says as much in his preaching lectures as well as in his contemporary explorations of dogmatics as a tool in the service of proclamation; after all, he suggests, proclamation is not identical to social work or political organizing -- though, he ads, the minister might very well engage in those activities as well (See Homiletics, p. 69. Cf. CD 1/1, p. 81)

If I wish to take a different slant on the Bremen sermon (or anything else Barth wrote, for that matter) -- that is, if I wish to read his preaching and doctrinal writings with a more intentionally contextual focus and to examine how a sermon text seems to be working materially (rather than just relying on the theory of how a sermon should work -- I'm not suggesting duplicity on his part. Rather, just as as the logger uses two strokes to cut the log, one with and one against the grain, so perhaps the reader needs a two-fold hermeneutic in approaching Barth's preaching. Perhaps we need to read the work of Barth, and other great theologians as well, against the grain as well if we want to really pry these texts open and learn what they might teach us.

"Saint Peter preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs" by Jan Styka, via Wikipedia

Maybe Barth's own words can help us here. In addition to other criteria for the sermon, including attentiveness to the Word of God as an event that speaks in and through the canonical scriptures, Barth himself stresses that the preacher does not declaim from above but, rather, is embedded in solidarity with the congregation in concrete lived existence. "If preaching is to be congregational," he writes, "there must also be openness to the real situation of the congregation and reflection upon it so as to be able to take it up into the sermon" (Homiletics, p. 84). "The congregation is waiting for the light of God to shine upon its troubled life, not for the preacher to blow horns that are being blown already" (p. 85).

What might happen, I wonder, if we tried to read between the lines a bit? Might it be that, rather than simply expounding a sacred text, Barth in his Bremen sermon has a rather pointed message intended for an insider audience, a message couched in language unlikely to set off alarms with the censors of the German Church and the Reich? Two caveats: First, this investigation is necessarily a bit tentative and speculative on my part. Second, attempting to interpret Barth, particularly in the pre-World-War-II period, is a complex and intricate affair. With my limitations, the best I can do in these posts is to rehearse the basic details of Barth's life situation that might help us make sense of the Bremen sermon, and that will be my modest goal for the next post.

This blog's illustrious editor brought to my attention a fairly recent monograph that seeks to situate Barth's homiletical work vis-a-vis the church struggle: Karl Barth's Emergency Homiletic, 1932-1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich by Angela Dienhart Hancock (Eerdmanns, 2013). I look forward to reading this. In the meantime, here is a link to a review of it.

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Works Cited:

Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1/1, trans. George W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975).

----- Homiletics, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley & Donald E. Daniels (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991).

----- The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. ed. Kurt I. Johanson and trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, BC, 2007.
(* Johanson kindly sent me a review copy of this book. I am not required to write a positive review of the book. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own.)

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