Word from the Trenches: Klempa on Barth as Wartime Preacher

Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany (left)
in Russian uniform, and Tsar Nicholas II
of Russia (right) in Prussian uniform.
(via Wikimedia Commons)
William Klempa's introduction highlights several notable features of Karl Barth's preaching (see pp. 40-45); most of these will not be new to the seasoned Barth student, but they are helpfully laid out here.

For one thing, Barth was deeply troubled by the preachers of the World War I era who used the pulpit to legitimate the entanglement of their respective nation states in the burgeoning conflict. As we shall see in looking at these sermons, Barth discerned a positive theological value in Swiss neutrality: Though Switzerland was far from innocent in the conflagration of the European powers and their respective allies worldwide, at least Barth could view his pulpit in the Aargau canton offered a vantage point for criticizing both sides in the war; Swiss neutrality, we might say using a later Barthian trope, provided a parable of the peaceable kingdom, dim though the reflection might be.

A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, Trans. & Ed. By William Klempa (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

On the one hand, Klempa writes:

Barth found much of the jingoistic preaching that emanated from German pulpits in World War I not only crass but bordering on the blasphemous: preachers identified the nation's cause with God's cause and slipped into the view that this war was a holy war or crusade (p. 41).

On the other hand, Barth also found wartime collusion among the French and English clergy as well.

Barth the homilist has been criticized for ignoring the concrete life situations of his hearers in his sermons; for example, David Butrick, in his introduction to the English edition of Barth's Homiletics, chides the Swiss preacher-theologian for (ostensibly) dismissing as untoward a concern with "relevance" in preaching. (Butrick, of course, is criticizing Barth's theories of preaching as expressed in his Bonn lectures in 1932-33, whereas, perhaps, these earlier sermons post particular interpretive challenges specific to their original context. For more on Barth's Homiletics lectures, see my earlier post.)

Whatever one makes of that charge, it certainly does not stick in these homilies from 1914, as Barth in this crucial year received complaints, from a parishioner, for focusing inordinately upon current events.

Barth's central homiletical goal, as Klempa sees it, was not to ignore the contemporary worldly context but to situate it in the broader, transcendent framework of divine truth; the Bible, on this view, was intrinsically close to the life situation of the its readers and auditors and therefore required no rhetorical spin to tease out its relevance. Perhaps in part for this reason, Barth was leery of anecdotes and illustrations to lift up and expand upon the claims of the biblical texts; he held, rather, to the perspecuity of the Word of God in scripture.

Many of us are inclined to think of Barth -- especially the Barth of the late 1910s through the early 1930s -- as a trenchant polemicist, whether his target is fellow dialectical theologians such as Brunner or Bultmann or the analogia entis doctrine of his Roman Catholic colleagues in Münster. How striking it is, then, to see in Barth's preaching that the threat of complacency and hubris vis-a-vis the war serves to relativize traditional confessional divides. Klempa writes:

In a remarkable Reformation Day sermon that was unusual for its time, Barth emphasized what Roman Catholics and Protestants have in common rather than what separates them. The war had changed everything, bringing these commonalities to the forefront (p. 44)

Protestants and Catholics shared a solidarity of guilt in enabling nationalism and militarism, a common practice of prayer, and a shared hope in a Kingdom of God that would break into history and heal the brokenness of all human communities. Klempa concludes this section:

This kind of openness to Roman Catholicism marked the beginning of Barth's openness to the whole Christian tradition, Eastern as well as Western. It was a harbinger of the ecumenical activity that would occur during the Weimar Republic and the first few years of the Third Reich (p. 45)

Note: WJK kindly sent me a complimentary copy of this book, with no expectation of a positive review.

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