Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 3)

Note: I've taken a long hiatus -- a few months, actually -- from this series. But I haven't forgotten about it and am ready to pick it up again. If you'd like a refresher, you can review my previous posts,  part 1 and part 2.

Karl Barth's theological existence was fully engaged with the world, and we should expect no less in terms of his ministry of preaching and homilectical instruction.
Raphael, "St. Paul Preaching in Athens"
In the evangelical sermon, as Barth understood it, the content of the biblical text and the lived contexts of its readers, auditors and interpreters should interpenetrate each other, within the free agency of the living Word; how this happens, though, is not necessarily self evident.

Barth explores this topic in a brief but tantalizing passage from his lecture cycle on preaching, delivered at Bonn University in 1932 and 1933 (on the "Actual Situation of the Text") (pp. 111-119). Some preachers may raise their eyebrows at some of the Swiss theologian's counsel -- for example, his rejection of sermon introductions; nonetheless, I've found myself warming to this material more than I expected. This passage, also, should help us clarify what Barth was attempting in his 1935 sermon at Bremen, during the weeks leading up to his departure from Germany.

The impetus of preaching, Barth reiterates, is explication of the witness to revelation, embedded -- organically, not mechanically -- in the Bible. This result ensues from a disciplined, sober and close reading of the text, rather than rhetorical bells and whistles, clever introductions and heart-rending confessions drawn from the subjective experiences of the preacher. The content of scriptural witness, though, is living and active, and extends itself into the worlds of preacher and congregation. Sound preaching entails not only explication of the text but "application" in the lives of hearers, though one must be careful in formulating the issue that way. "The preacher is not isolated when he proclaims the Word as a herald. It is part of the office to be very sensitive to the congregation and very intimately bound up with it" (p. 111). Barth continues:

The people we address are people with all kinds of anxieties and needs. It is in this very concrete situation of their earthly condition and situation that the call of Jesus Christ comes to them as people of the present age (pp. 112-113).

At first, Barth suggest that the relationship between explication and application that ensues in this situation can be described as the relationship between subject and predicate. But then he problematizes this in an interesting way. The issue is how to integrate, concretely and faithfully, "closeness to life" and "closeness to the text" (p. 113). "Each word that is to be proclaimed to the listeners must become a Word that is specifically and decisively addressed to our own present" (p. 114). This application requires courage, the willingness to risk speaking the Word within the contingencies of history. Though Barth does not invoke here a prophetic vocation in these pages, what he says does evoke that sense for me.

[P]roper application of the text demands a certain ordinary courage -- the courage that simply wants to help the content of the Word to find expression in all circumstances vis-a-vis life's external relations, a courage, then , which in obedience to the text ventures an assault on the concrete situation of life, and which is spared any responsibility for the consequences of this assault that is launched in obedience to the Word of scripture (p. 115).

More pointedly: "What the text has to say may be said unconditionally even if it costs the preacher his neck" (ibid.).

Or if not his neck, at least his job.

Source: Karl Barth, Homilectics, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Donald E. Daniels (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991).



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