Saturday, April 17, 2004

Barth on Preaching

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s Homiletics. This was an unexpected treat. For Barth, “theology as a church discipline ought in all the branches to be nothing other than sermon preparation in the broadest sense” (p. 17). Because all theology should be about sermons, his short account of sermon writing is an insight into all of Barth’s theology. Barth’s theology is focussed on the Word of God, in a three-fold form. The first of these is Jesus Christ, the second is the Scriptures as the witnesses to Jesus Christ, and the third is church proclamation (see especially Church Dogmatics I/1). It is the third form that is in his sights here. “To preach is to tread again with the congregation the way of witness taken by the text. Here the very great burden of the mystery of revelation is lifted from us. What the prophets and apostles heard, we must try and repeat” (p. 104). Although this might suggest that a sermon is nothing more than the repetition of scripture, Barth does not seem to mean this. The suggestion of ‘treading again, with the congregation, the way of witness’ has echoes of pilgrimage to it and suggests a journey in which both preacher and congregation are involved. (I remember telling my bishop that I saw preaching as trying to take the congregation with me on my journey into the meaning of the text. We agreed that neither motorways nor winding footpaths were the best ways to travel!)

Because, for Barth, the Word of God is an event of God’s initiation he can speak of the burden of revelation being lifted from us. Only God can make the sermon speak his voice, not human prowess or effort. “The encouraging ‘Do not worry’ must strike the heart of the discouraged preacher, for the heavenly Father has made provision, and we have simply to be prepared to listen to his word” (p. 92). This is liberating for the preacher.

Once again, however, Barth starts to sound as if there is nothing to do other than to say the words of the text. Perhaps the greatest counter to this danger is Barth’s insistence that preachers have to do their homework. Preachers are instructed to read commentaries, especially those of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, and to do the philological work on the text. This should be approached in Hebrew or Greek initially, and only then in translation. Doctrine itself is a guide to preaching, a codification of ways of reading the text (?). Barth’s student preachers could not have had an easy time of it.

Two other things to note. The first is a long quotation about preaching on sin. “Certainly something has to be said about human sin and errors. Yet it ought to be said from the standpoint of sin forgiven and error removed. Sin undoubtedly has to be taken seriously, but forgiveness even more seriously. For either forgiveness is the first word or it is not true at all. Sin must be spoken about only as the sin which is taken away by the Lamb of God. Christian preaching deals with sin as forgiven sin” (p. 52).

Secondly, Barth warns the preacher against ‘relevance’. He says that he was told by a parishioner in 1914 that he preached too much about the war. He thinks that the parishioner was right! Being relevant, referring to local events and occurrences should not detract from preaching the word of God. “Pastors should be good marksmen who aim their guns beyond the hill of relevance” (p. 119). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, as I find that recent events can illustrate sermons and that the gospel speaks to me about contemporary events. I think Barth may be right that simply trying to speak of current events (rather than to speak about God) is not the point of a sermon. Thus the pulpit should never be simply a soapbox for the preacher’s political or social ideals. Nevertheless Barth is reputed to have told preachers that they should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. To develop his metaphor of the pastor as marksman, the target is not relevance but the word of God to the congregation. That should not mean that the target is irrelevance either.

There’s much to ponder here. If I had time, I’d consider working some of it up into a little article. An unexpected pleasure to read, but worth some time to think on.

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