Saturday 2 May 2009

Karl Barth on preaching

Following Aaron’s post yesterday, I noticed this post by Dustin, quoting Karl Barth on both the weakness and the obligation of preaching. Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics offers probably the best theology of preaching I’ve ever read – here’s an excerpt from the passage quoted in Dustin’s post:

“But, some might say, how can we theologians come to speak God’s Word in our words? Or, some congregation might say, how can we come to hear God’s Word in the words of this or that pastor who has nothing to offer us, or in the words of all pastors, none of whom we trust? … If we expected to hear God's Word more, we would hear it more even in the weak and perverted sermons. The statement that there was nothing in it for me should often read that I was not ready to let anything be said to me. What is needed here is repentance by both pastors and congregations…. This does not mean that congregations must say Yea and Amen to all the words of their reverend pastors. Pastors are sinners. They are unprofitable servants with all their words even though they do all that they are under obligation to do (cf. Luke 17:10). Nevertheless, they are servants of the Most High (cf. Dan. 3:26). They speak in his name. They carry out his commission, which is a reality even today. No matter how well or how badly they do it, this in the presupposition of listening to them…. They know fear and trembling whenever they mount the pulpit. They are crushed by the feeling of being poor human beings who are probably more unworthy than all those who sit before them. Nevertheless, precisely then it is still a matter of God’s Word. The Word of God that they have to proclaim is what judges them, but this does not alter the fact – indeed, it means – that they have to proclaim it. This is the presupposition of their proclaiming it.”

—Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1, 33-35.


Anonymous said...

"This does not mean that congregations must say Yea and Amen to all the words of their reverend pastors. Pastors are sinners."

I sat under the teaching of a pastor for years that expected Yea and Amen constantly and always. What about a pastor like that? Is a refusal enough?

"They know fear and trembling whenever they mount the pulpit. They are crushed by the feeling of being poor human beings who are probably more unworthy than all those who sit before them."

Simply put, what about when the pastor doesn't feel these things before mounting the pulpit?

Surely Barth writes (and I am honestly unfamiliar with most of his theology of preaching) that God's Word is not always preached. As much as I love Barth, I am having trouble processing this. Is this perhaps a dialectal approach where God's Word is revealed by its opposite?

I am coming at this from the approach of one who sat in a congregation with not just plain old vanilla preaching, but fire and brimstone, screaming and pounding (often on his chest), anger at crying kids and the lack of attentiveness (to a sermon reaching lengths greater than one-and-a-half hours frequently) and generally schismatic and separatist screeds - the shrillest of shrill perhaps. Leaving this church was a great thing for me, so I am perhaps confused when I am interpreting Barth to say that it is my fault I wasn't getting anything out of these services. I did leave with cynicism, apathy, and a whole stack of emerging church books in the aftermath of my departure - the first slightly critical reaction I had after a bout of pre-critical agnosticism/atheism. Enough personal stuff - you get the idea. What gives?

Anonymous said...

Why didn't Barth just say with the fake faith healers that when the healing fails its down to the subjects lack of faith. Talk about excusing boring and irrelevant speech.
Luther like Calvin just replaced the one Pope with re Barth paper popes preaching their endless drivel as if anyone grows from sitting in the pew. When will Pastors repent of their lust for power and confess that where the Body of Christ is then those there 'are fully able to admonish one another' you never know if they start truly talking to one another you might even get some real fellowship going.

Andy Rowell said...

To be fair to Barth, his comments to preachers in his 1932-1933 lectures published as Homiletics (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) are probably even stronger than his comments here to listeners. He echoes many of Aaron's frustrations were vented in the last "rant" post though Barth's purpose (like Aaron's I suspect) is to improve preaching.

Barth writes, "I must refer to three fatal possibilities . . . 1. Preachers must not be 'clerics' who, puffed up with the sense of their mission, office, and theology, and perhaps 'full of the Holy Ghost,' attempt to represent the interests of the good Lord to the world . . . Where holy scripture reigns, no clericalism can develop, and no preacher can be secure or self-satisfied. 2. Preachers must not be visionaries, well-meaning idealists, who push big ideas around in their heads but have no grasp of reality. Preaching that is biblical is never visionary, for holy scripture speaks to reality . . . 3. Preachers must not be boring. To a large extent the pastor and boredom are synonymous concepts. Listeners often thinkg that they have heard already what is being said in the pulpit. They have long since known it themselves. The fault certainly does not lie in them alone. Against boredom the only defense is again being biblical. If a sermon is biblical, it will not be boring. Holy scripture is in fact so interesting and has so much that is new and exciting to tell us that listeners cannot even think about dropping off to sleep" (79-80).

In addition to complaining about 1) arrogant, 2) clueless, and 3)boring preaching, Barth also warns about illustrations, cliches, introductions and conclusions. "Especially unhelpful is the method of seasoning a sermon with all kinds of illustrations" (117). "By overhasty and superficial writing we risk ruining the language and letting cliches become a regular disease" (120). "The greater part of all introductions does not introduce. It distracts our thoughts from the Word of God. Instead of leading in, it leads out" (122). "As we reject the special introduction, so there can be no independent conclusion" (127).

In other words for Barth, the listener needs to do their part and the preacher their part.

Anonymous said...

the rant by mr ghiloni
leaves me as confused as your
protest here.
are you se well equipped to understand the bible exegetically,
in todays practical context etc.
I, for example, would never ever have been able to wrestle with all
the inconsistencies in the resurrection narratives without preachers, sermons, homilies, who put this in perspective.
to be honest, I am completely taken aback by this rants.
The comparison, I admit, is a bit far fetched; but would you but aside all your drugs because a doctor once prescribed a wrong one
kurt usar,md

Saint Egregious said...

'Against boredom the only defense is again being biblical. If a sermon is biblical, it will not be boring.'

Okay, I know what Barth is driving at, and I agree in principle, but the danger of misreading him here is great.
Really, would his unbelievable Epistle to the Romans have awakened anyone from their doggy slumbers if Kierkegaard, Overbeck, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky had not slithered their way onto the Barthian desktop and given a flavor boost to Paul's overworked meditations?
The Bible can be as boring as any other book if read with a heart weighed down with acedia, and it simply wont do for the preacher to use it as a crutch when he or she has allowed the fire to die out. Barth knew that well, which is why I continue to think that his later gesturing away from kierkegaardian irony and indirection is not one most of us can afford to make without becoming dogmatic in the worst possible sense.

Andy Rowell said...

Saint Egregious,
I agree. To his credit, Barth does indeed clarify his emphasis on being "biblical."

"Conformity to scripture is not a hood behind which we cannot see the preachers" (Homiletics 81).
His comments that that both theology ("dogmatics") and preaching require courage are not far from Kierkegaard. See the three quotes below. Preaching should be both biblical and courageous.

"To endure and bear means not to be slack but to show a little courage for God's sake. If, of course, anyone was unwilling or unable to show a little courage as a theologian, he should be advised not to become involved at all" (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, written in 1962, 146-147).

"Then there must be the courage to say to others what is now there for me" (Karl Barth, Homiletics, written in 1932, 82).

"Therefore, venture it [do what you can for God], you who embraced the good and remained true to our resolution; have the courage (since you do know that the discourse is against cowardliness, not against pride) to venture the lesser, if you wish to call it that, to acknowledge the good even if you do not gleam with it!" Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, (trans. Howard Vincent Hong; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 375.

Saint Egregious said...

Those are wonderful passages, Andy. Thanks for pulling them up.
For myself, I tend to think George Pattison is right in his reading of Barth--that Barth's reading of Kierkegaard is partial and not always sensitive to the strategy of the pseudonyms, and that in his turn to dogmatics, he may have moved past Kierkegaard a bit to quickly. That it was, as Philip Ziegler recently argued, at times a 'striking out at phantoms' and thinking he's hit the mad Dane.
That said, I think reading the Dogmatics with one kierkegaardian eye may not be mere distortion but a very fruitful way of re-vitalizing theological discourse. Steven Shakespeare's Kierkegaard and his critique of RO has helped me here, as well.

Josh said...

I want to second Andy's recommendation of Barth's slim book Homiletics--readable, practical, helpful.

roger flyer said...

My take on the the point is Andy's 1 2 3 is the state.

Hence, less bully pulpit, more Geo. Herbert poetry.

::aaron g:: said...

The juxtaposition of this and the past two posts makes me wonder what the proper relationship between a “theology of preaching” and homiletics is?

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