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Conversations with Barth on Preaching

Conversations with Barth on Preaching

by William H. Willimon

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One of today’s greatest preacher-theologians engages one of the twentieth century's greatest teacher-theologians on the meaning of preaching.

Readers of William H. Willimon’s many books have long found there the influence of Karl Barth, probably the most significant theologian of the twentieth century. In this new book Willimon


One of today’s greatest preacher-theologians engages one of the twentieth century's greatest teacher-theologians on the meaning of preaching.

Readers of William H. Willimon’s many books have long found there the influence of Karl Barth, probably the most significant theologian of the twentieth century. In this new book Willimon explores that relationship explicitly by engaging Barth’s work on the pitfalls and problems, glories and grandeur of preaching the Word of God. The Swiss theologian, says the author, expressed one of the highest theologies of preaching of any of the great theologians of the church. Yet too much of Barth’s understanding of preaching lies buried in the Church Dogmatics and other, sometimes obscure, sources. Willimon brings this material to light, introducing the reader to Barth’s thought, not just on the meaning, but the practice of preaching as well.

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Abingdon Press
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Conversations with Barth on Preaching

By William H. Willimon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-2053-6


Barth the Preacher

Although Barth would be adamantly opposed to the current enthusiasm for theologizing from "experience," or theology that is "contextual," Barth's life, particularly his early years as preacher and pastor, illuminate his theology. His last assistant, Eberhard Busch, has given us our only Barth biography, noted for its thorough but uncritical account of his life. Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland, in May of 1886. His father, Fritz, taught at the College of Preachers, but moved the family on to the University of Bern when Barth was very young. Later in life Barth noted what a strong example his father had given him of someone who took theology seriously. Barth's boyhood experience of Confirmation whetted his appetite for theology, so upon beginning his university studies in 1904, he focused on theology. There he was introduced to Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, calling it "the first book that really moved me as a student." But Barth's encounters with the thought of Troeltsch and Herrmann at Marburg convinced him that he "must refuse to follow the dominant: theology of the age," even though the exact form of that refusal was no: yet clear in his mind.

The Young Pastor

Upon completion of his formal studies, he was called immediately as an assistant at Calvin's old pulpit in Geneva. Barth's initial attempt at preaching was unhappy. In Geneva, even when preaching from that historic pulpit, the people were unresponsive. Later, Barth excused his efforts by saying that he thought he did little real harm to people because he was heard by so few. Reflecting on his time in Geneva, he noted that though he attempted to lay his academic theological training on the congregation, foisting upon them "all that historicism and individualism," the people in Geneva "weren't having any."

Though the nave was mostly empty, Barth continued to preach a mostly liberal gospel. The liberal "inner Jesus" of his teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922), seemed to Barth the most credible basis for the Christian faith to make contact with the modern world. While the search for a Jesus of history had ended in a dead end with the historical reconstruction of Jesus looking suspiciously like a mirror image of the historians themselves, Herrmanns answer had been to turn from a historical Jesus to a subjective, "inner Jesus." From Herrmann, Barth learned to be suspicious of historical Jesus reconstruction efforts as the attempt to step outside of faith into some objective security. Faith cannot be defended or justified by some means external to the faith itself. Historical research into scripture can therefore play an important but only secondary role. The important thing is a believer's individual experience with Christ, an experience which the liberal assumes is on a rather comfortable continuum between the believer and Christ.

By 1911, when Barth moved from Geneva to become pastor to a rather forlorn industrial village in Safenwil, canton of Aargau, he had the opportunity to focus more on his preaching, and when he did, he began to question some of his inherited theological assertions. Attendance in Safenwil was as poor as it had been in Geneva. However, now that Barth had had the experience of preaching week-in and week-out to his own congregation, he was more consumed by the challenges of the preaching task and more starkly confronted by the weaknesses of the theology he received at the university. In Safenwil, Barth preached long, excruciatingly intellectual sermons that sailed over the heads of the simple folk in the pews. Though some said that his style was energetic and personal, Barth discovered that Herrmann's urbane liberalism was not at all helpful with a number of more challenging biblical texts. So Barth preached many topical sermons in these early years at Safenwil, preaching on such invigorating topics as "Mission" or "The Life of William Booth" and "The Heritage of the Reformation."

Gary Dorrien characterized Barth's early preaching in this way:

He equated God with that which is "highest and best in our souls" and lauded Schleiermacher as "the brilliant, leader of a new reformation." He taught that Christianity is rooted in the individual's experience of Christ and that Christ's victory over death lay in his calm acceptance of his impending crucifixion. Jesus was resurrected long before he died, Barth assured his congregation.... He later recalled that he and the people of Safenwil always seemed to be looking at each other through a pane of glass.

The differences between his congregation and Harnack's or Herrmann's academic audience in Berlin and Marburg were sobering to Barth. He realized how much theology had tailored itself to fit the demands of the academy rather than the church. He also realized the limits of attempting to preach from an anthropological assessment of the "modern mind." When Barth attempted to share his own inner turmoil with his congregation in a sermon, that self-revelation only made them more suspicious of his preaching. Looking back on his first years as a young pastor, he said that he was sorry "for everything that my congregation had to put up with."

Later, when he visited his former congregation in 1935 as a renowned theologian, he apologized for not having preached the gospel more clearly when he was among them. "I have often thought with some trepidation of those who were perhaps led astray or scandalized by what I said at. that time, or of the dead who have passed on and did not hear, at any rate from me, what by human reckoning they ought to have heard." Elsewhere he confessed that he was tormented "by the memory of how greatly, how yet more greatly, I failed as a pastor of Safenwil." Though they could not have known it at the time, the simple folk at Safenwil were witnessing the first stirrings of one of the century's remarkable theological transformations.

During this formative pastoral period an important influence came to Barth from a fellow rastor whose theology was very different from Barth's. Christoph Blumhardt (1858-1919) was a charismatic Christian socialist, son of a prominent Lutheran preacher and healer. The younger Blumhardt and Barth met for a series of conversations in 1915, just before Barth began his work on Romans. The thing that impressed Barth about Blumhardt, as he later explained, was that "Blumhardt always begins right away with God's presence, might, and purpose: he starts out from God; he does not begin by climbing upwards to Him by means of contemplation and deliberation." From Blumhardt, Barth learned that theology commences with God, not with our pious yearnings or experience. The God of Blumhardt's theology was a strong, active, present God. What is God doing in the world? is a more important question Man any of our questions about ourselves. Genuinely Christian thinking is oriented not to our supposed "religious experience"—the infatuation of nineteenth-century theology—but to God's actual work in the world. This realization, fostered in him through Blumhardt, had the effect of moving Barth away from some of his mild youthful socialism into an even more radical assessment of the relationship of Christianity in the world. The most radically political statement we can make is when we are able to say, in the face of the world's politics, "Thy kingdom come!" The world with its present political arrangements does not simply need improvement; it needs radical, sweeping, eschatological transformation that only God can give. That transformation cannot be fully characterized with the available language of socialist politics. Christianity demands its own distinctive speech to describe its distinctive vision. And from Blumhardt, Barth learned of the kingdom of God as a present reality that comes to us from beyond, a Kingdom that precedes and judges all of our concepts and experiences of the kingdoms of this world, particularly religiously derived concepts of the kingdom of God.

Barth evidenced, from his earliest years, a distinctive characteristic of his thought—a wonderful naïveté about the personalities of history, entering into dialogue with them as if they were fully present contemporaries, testimony to his strong faith in the reality of the communion sanctorum. As Francis Watson said of Barth's commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, "The disjunction between then and now has largely been abandoned." To his great: credit, Barth never lost this immediate, engaging naïveté that enabled him to converse with historical personalities and biblical texts with an open-eyed wonder that yielded stunning insights.

A peculiar influence upon the young Barth was Franz Overbeck, pariahic professor of New Testament in Basel and a friend of Nietzsche. Most theologians of the day regarded Overbeck as an erratic iconoclast, a crank. In 1920 Barth wrote "Unsettled Questions for Theology Today," a review of Overbeck's Christentum und Kultur, published posthumously. Barth took issue with those who thought that Overbeck was an atheist who was hostile to Christianity lf Overbeck was correct, said Barth, then "it is impossible for anyone really to be such a thing as a theologian." Overbeck said that contemporary theology had become a sham with its trumped-up historicism and intellectual pretense. Theology had reached a cul de sac. But Barth heard here a more positive message that: he favorably (surprisingly) compared to the thought of the pious Blumhardt. Barth thought that both of these seemingly opposite thinkers said much the same thing: Christianity is essentially eschatological and demands an end to conventional modes of thinking. The peculiar subject matter of Christianity demands peculiar intellectual resources. Overbeck said that the option before us was either respectable history or outrageous Christianity. Christianity, he argued, was not something to be based upon historical events. Christianity claimed to be an end of history. It was not of this world, but rather a great contradiction to the world. Historical methods could not uncover or judge the claims of Christianity because those claims transcend history. Historians could never climb out of their own limited history in order to make judgments about history. Christianity was an in-breaking of the kingdom of God that obliterated all other kingdoms, including the "kingdom" that is served by historical study and its subservient historians.

Overbeck was not a Christian. He expected that Christianity would gradually fade away (as it indeed appears to have done in much of Switzerland). Yet Barth defends him, perhaps ironically, as a heroic thinker whose anti-theology suggests a return to the true purpose of theology. At least Overbeck was honest enough to know that there are few Christians left in the world and that Christianity cannot be supported or defended by the conventional intellectual means of making sense of the world—like history, a bogus application of Christianity that only reduces Christianity to another worldly philosophy and thereby erases Christianity's wild claims for itself.

Barth loved Overbeck's eschatological emphasis (as much as he loved the eschatology of Blumhardt) and resonated with Overbeck's hyperbolic critique. From Overbeck he received a radically new awareness of the decisive difference between Christianity and our so-called history, curiously overlooking Overbeck's own loss of faith through his study of history. Christianity was a present eschatological experience, or it was not the Christianity of the Bible. History, said Overbeck, was an abyss "into which Christianity has been thrown wholly against its will." Was Overbeck a theologian? Barth wrote (almost as if describing himself) that "a theologian who is determined not to be a theologian might perhaps—if the impossible is to become possible—be a very good theologian." Barthian irony is here apparent: one can only be a true theologian by denouncing and denigrating theology, constructing theology by dismantling theology, constantly turning theology against itself in order to adhere to its proper object—a God who is so distinctively different from us as to be a constant problem for theology.

We might also mention Barth's curious relationship to the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach (1829-1880). Like Overbeck, Feuerbach was a fierce critic of Christianity, yet his critique provided Barth with the insight he needed to assail the liberal theology of his student years. In an article he wrote in 1920, Barth praised Feuerbach for astutely unmasking the problem of theology. What Barth liked most in Feuerbach was not his notorious idea that Christianity was a mere projection of human religious yearnings, but rather Feuerbach's bald reduction of theology to nothing but anthropology, thus typifying the fate of most theology of the age. Theology had degenerated into anthropology, beginning with various assessments of the "human condition" rather than with, "And God said...." Feuerbach furthered a process that began in Kant. Feuerbach merely exposed theology's nasty little secret: it had become more interested in humanity than God. From Feuerbach Barth learned his famous dictum that theology must be more than talking about humanity in a very loud voice. Otherwise, Feuerbach's charge against "theology" would simply be confirmed by our "theologians" themselves.

One of the few novelists who appealed to Barth was Fyodor Dostoevsky. Barth's good friend Eduard Thurneysen (1888-1978) introduced him to this wild Russian. Barth was drawn to Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor," a central chapter in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. He found therein a sort of literary presentation of Overbeck's argument against church history. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor wants to improve the course of history, rather than to follow the narrow way of Christ. He offers people what they want: religion (namely miracle, mystery, and authority) in order to pacify them and keep them docile and happy. In fact, when Jesus appears to the Inquisitor, the church leader is repulsed by the sight of him. The Inquisitor accuses Jesus of caring nothing for the masses, those for whom the church must provide comfort and care, peace and security. Jesus only cared for the few heroic individuals who obeyed his revolutionary, "Follow me." In fact, the Inquisitor interpreted the three temptations Jesus overcame in Luke 4 as the three main tasks of the church: giving the people the means to believe, giving people bread before it gives them Spirit, and political order and security.

Barth read Dostoevsky's parable as a stark contrast between the way of Jesus and the conventional way of the church. The battle that raged was not the church against the world, but rather, Jesus against the institution that bears his name; not atheism against religion, but rather, Jesus against religion. The church attempted to save and preserve humanity, whereas it ought to point to Jesus as the only means of salvation. Jesus responds to the Inquisitor with a silent kiss, a reversal of Judas's betrayal of Jesus. This literary scene became a basis for Barth's sustained attack upon "religion," not only in Romans but also throughout the Dogmatics.

One more influence upon the early Barth ought to be mentioned, the solitary Dane, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Barth was impressed by Kierkegaard's "infinite qualitative distinction" (stressed in the opening pages of Romans) between God and humanity, but he also subsumed Kierkegaardian irony into his style. Barth seized upon Kierkegaard's metaphor of the "moment" to denote the time when God obliterates the slow progression of history and breaks into history as salvific event. But Kierkegaard was too depressed, sad, and anthropological for Barth's temperament. Kierkegaard seems to have influenced Barth's style more than his substance, making Barth's style richly metaphorical, ironic, and figurative, rather than abstract and systematic, demanding from us a decision and hoping to convert us in the process. From Kierkegaard, Barth learned that Christianity is an invasion, an event whereby the eternal sweeps into time in this moment, demanding an either/or decision from us. Traveling in such disgruntled theological company, Barth could not help but radicalize and intensify his early dissatisfaction with the bland liberal theology that he had found to be so uninteresting in the pulpit.

Barth spent ten years as pastor in Safenwil, years he would look hack upon as ten important years that led him, during this pastoral decade, to a complete abandonment of his youthful theological liberalism. As a pastor, he involved himself in local political arguments, arguments that led to considerable conflict not only with some ofthe economic and political leaders of the town, but with his congregation as well. His early socialist interest revealed to Barth the bourgeois confinement of his teachers and earned for him the title, among some in the village, of "the Red Pastor."


Excerpted from Conversations with Barth on Preaching by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Feeling most at home behind a pulpit, Will Willimon’s deepest calling is to be a preacher and truth-teller of Jesus Christ. He is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School and retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, after serving for 20 years as faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Will Willimon has published many books, including his preaching subscription service on MinistryMatters.com, Pulpit Resource, and Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, both published by Abingdon Press.

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