Thursday 29 November 2007

Can a minister be saved?

Our friend Ray Anderson was recently re-reading Barth’s shattering collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928), and he suggested that some excerpts from the 1922 address on “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching” (pp. 97-135) might be a useful sequel to the recent post on Kierkegaard. So, thanks to Ray, here are a few excerpts from Barth:

“Can a minister be saved? I would answer that with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. God may pluck us as a brand out of the fire. But so far as we know, there is no one who deserves the wrath of God more abundantly than the ministers…. As a matter of fact the church is really an impossibility. There can be no such thing as a minister. Who dares, who can, preach, knowing what preaching is? …

“On Sunday morning when the bells ring to call the congregation and minister to church, there is in the air an expectancy that something great, crucial, and even momentous is to happen…. Do [the people] really know at all why they are here? In any case here they are – even though they be shrunk in number to one little old woman – and their being here points to the event that is expected or appears to be expected, or at least, if the place be dead and deserted, was once expected here.

“And here above all is a human being, upon whom the expectation of the apparently imminent event seems to rest in a special way…: he himself chose this profession, God knows from what understanding or misunderstanding of it, and he has now for better or for worse wedded his short, his only life to the expectation of the event. And now before the congregation and for the congregation he will pray – you note: pray – to God! He will open the Bible and read from it words of infinite import, words that refer, all of them, to God. And then he will enter the pulpit and – here is daring! – preach; that is, he will add to what has been read from the Bible something from his own head and heart, ‘Biblical’ ideas, it may be, according to his knowledge and conscience, or ideas which fly boldly or timidly beyond the Bible; yesterday one prepared a ‘fundamentalist’, and another a ‘liberal’ sermon. But does it make so much difference which it was when the subject is considered? Every one must apparently, perhaps nolens volens, speak of God.

“And then the [minister] will have the congregation sing ancient songs full of weighty and weird memories, strange ghostly witnesses of the sufferings, struggles, and triumphs of the long departed fathers, all leading to the edge of an immeasurable event, all, whether the minister and people understand what they are singing or not, full of reminiscences of God, always of God. ‘God is present!’ God is present. The whole situation witnesses, cries, simply shouts of it, even when in minister or people there arises questioning, wretchedness, or despair. Then perhaps it is witnessed to best of all – better than when the real problem is obscured or concealed by abundant human success.”


Anonymous said...

Heh, when the minister is a young graduate student who is compelled to exposit the word he barely knows in front of people he still barely knows in a dangerous part of town he barely knows it is that much the worse I guess. Thanks be to God for his mercy to theology students and ministers.

Anonymous said...

Er..undergraduate student, I had to drop Hebrew.

Anonymous said...

"Can a minister be saved?" Sure - minimally for a rainy day, ideally in a Swiss bank account.

"There can be no such thing as a minister." Ah, so that's why my people take no notice of me!

Barth sums up thus: "As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability, and by that very recognition give God the glory."

To adapt Jüngel's famous phrase: Ministers are not necessary, they are more than necessary.

Glen said...

Note that Barth affirms in the strongest terms Bullinger's "preaching of the Word of God *is* the Word of God."

[Preaching is] “the speaking of God himself through the lips of the minister.” Karl Barth, Homiletics, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, p67.

Or note how Barth quotes Luther approvingly:
“…a preacher must not say the Lord’s Prayer, nor ask forgiveness of sins, when he has preached (if he is a true preacher)… It is neither necessary nor good to ask here for forgiveness of sins, as though the teaching were false. For it is not my word but God’s, which He neither will nor can forgive me, and for which He must always praise and reward me saying: You have taught rightly for I have spoken through you and the Word is mine. Whoever cannot boast thus of his preaching repudiates preaching; for he expressly denies and slanders God.” (I/2, p747)

Here is daring indeed!

Plessey Mathews said...


Sorry to be obtuse. Does Bath mean that a flawed man who preaches with flawed words should always expect praise and reward from God? Or is a just a bit of hyperbole?

Robert Cornwall said...

Since Barth's statement of a different age and most of the comments here seem to equate preacher with a "he", let me suggest that we consider that the "flawed woman" of God can preach just as well as the "flawed man" of God -- maybe better!

And having taken Ray Anderson in seminary -- I know he would concur.

Glen said...


"If he is a true preacher" is an important qualifier! If not then *much* forgiveness must be asked.

For Barth, flawed (or at least 'vulnerable') preachers and words are exactly the humanity in which the Word must meet us. But he is adamant that this does not dilute the Lordly power of Christ's contemporary address in the church. This is the christological analogy when applied to preaching - the divine nature uncompromised by the human.

You might ask, what are the controls? I think the trinitarian analogy is helpful here. Within the perichoresis of the three forms of the Word (Christ, Bible, preaching), this Word meets us in God's Name and with His authority. Thus to the extent that it is a Scriptural word concerning Christ, preaching is the Word of God, and to the extent that it is God's Word we must not be apologetic about that. (Not like Barth to be apologetic is it?!)

I've written a *long* paper about Barth and preaching here if you're interested:

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