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.


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.)



Scott, thank you for your patient approach to Barth's preaching. It's easy to rush in and judge him. But we shouldn't. The dude thought a lot about the pulpit.

What I have liked about Barth's homiletical posture is his tacit awareness of preacher, congregation, and society without aiming directly at any of them. Preaching for him is chiefly objective and theological. To patch in another Matthean passage: "And when they raised their eyes, all they saw was Jesus" (17:8). To speak the word "God" is to hear in its Christic echo "humanity." In daring the supernatural the preacher addresses the natural as a matter of course.

Barth's approach may not take seriously enough the priestly task of preaching. But as a prophetic action it makes a lot of sense to me.
Thanks for your comments, Nathan.

If we were to bring Barth into the present, we could create a meme that says "Keep Calm and Preach the Word."

This little study has certainly increased my respect for Barth as preacher and teacher. Like you, I find myself reading him as a prophetic preacher -- at least, that's how I want to read him -- and to see his approach as one model, not necessarily the only one, for preaching prophetically. I also want to keep the MLK model in play too. Context is extremely important, obviously.

I'm interested to know how you see the "priestly task of preaching" and how you see Barth as falling short in that department.
Nathan Hitchcock said…
I'm rethinking the priestly idiom these days as I provide some counsel to a couple of local churches. What does it mean to have a preacher who can "minister before the LORD" by bringing the people's offerings to God and helping to purify them? Indeed, how might Barth have understood the preacher as human-to-human facilitator, one whom "you shall consult, and they shall declare to you the decision" (Deut 17:9)?

If you can help me bridge Barth's theology of preaching into this paradigm, I'd appreciate the insight.

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