Reading Notes: Homiletics by Karl Barth


I’ve just finished Homiletics, a book that is comprised of student notes taken on Karl Barth’s lectures on preaching at Bonn in 1932-33. Barth is famously quoted as saying – somewhat apocryphally – “a pastor should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” If Barth did say that, he had moderated that view by the time he gave these lectures. For Barth, knowing the contemporary context of the congregation is indispensable for the act of preaching, but preaching should always be from the Bible and not aim for relevancy. Barth says that one of his mistakes in his early ministry was that he was always preaching about current events. He is hilariously self-critical of the sermon that he gave after the sinking of the Titanic: “In 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shocked the world, the next Sunday I had to make this disaster the main theme of my sermon, and a monster of a full-scale Titanic sermon resulted” (118). Let no one accuse Barth of lacking a sense of humor. He is also critical of the heavy presence of the First World War in his preaching, something that only stopped when a woman in his congregation begged him to talk about something else. Preachers must be relevant, but relevancy cannot be purchased at the cost of fidelity to the message of the Bible. “All honor to relevance, but pastors should be good marksmen who aim their guns beyond the hill of relevance” (118-119). The Bible is relevant enough on its own and since it contains the witness to Jesus Christ it is more relevant to the human situation than anything culled from the pages of the newspaper.

This brings us to the books basic thesis: preachers are slaves to the Bible and consequently are servants of the congregation. I don’t think slaves is too strong a word here. Barth never uses the term, but throughout he envisions the pastor having a slavish relationship to the Scriptural Word. Preachers cannot preach anything other than the text, they can’t go above, beyond, or behind the text. Preachers are repeaters (this is one of Barth’s favorite words in this book) of the Biblical witness to the contemporary congregation in such a way that the congregation understands not just what they Bible said “back then” but that they could hear it as the Word of God addressed to them today. This is the service that the preacher renders to the congregation.

Because the pastor is a slave of the Word, Barth is completely dismissive of the common rhetorical tools that most preachers employ: introductions, illustrations, repetition, and conclusions. Barth’s great concern is that in employing these tools, preachers are proclaiming something other than the Bible, such as themselves, the contemporary context, a general religious feeling or ethical sensibility, a political or social program, a systemic theology, basically anything other than the Scripture itself. A sermon that proclaims something other than the message of Scripture isn’t a sermon at all but human religious propaganda. It is this danger that preachers must be careful to avoid at all costs, lest their preaching be in service of another god.

Barth is worried that all of these tools are merely the search for a “point of contact, for an analogue in us which can be a point of entry into the Word of God. It is believed that this little door to the inner self must first be found and opened before it is worthwhile to bring the message. No! This is plain heresy” (124). Introductions and the like smack of an analogia entis  (analogy of being) that collapses the infinite difference between God and humanity and thus inevitably – for Barth – makes the divine Word a tool that human beings can use for their own ideological purposes. It is this fear of analogy, of points of contact, that leads Barth to reject and neglect the tools of rhetoric in his lectures on preaching, much to the preacher’s and the congregation’s impoverishment. If Barth is right that if we reject the analogia entis we must also reject sermon illustrations, then I must part ways with him here and pursue the Via Millinerdiumwhich is to go with Barth on election but not analogy.

Barth is completely right that the preacher is always in danger of proclaiming something other than the message of Scripture, but just as this doesn’t mean that the preacher must abandon historical-critical tools in his or her exegesis (in fact, Barth says that we must make use of these tools), I see no reason why the preacher shouldn’t make use of the best rhetorical tools in delivering the sermon.The preacher is a slave to the Word, and only in this slavery can the preacher make use of the best exegetical and rhetorical tools to serve his master. The danger is of course that we make these tools our masters, that is why the task of preaching must always begin with repentance. “Forgive us our debts” is a prayer for every preacher and every sermon.

Barth’s basic message that is worth heeding is that the preacher must always be careful in crafting what he says, from his reading of the passage, to his exegesis, to his writing of the manuscript, and finally to his delivery. All of this requires great diligence and attentiveness to the risk of abandoning the text for some other message, but I see no reason why rhetorical tools should be rejected out of hand. A great weakness of these lectures is that they fail to engage in any exegesis with the sermons in Scripture. Exegesis of the sermons in Acts would have been helpful, as would reflections on Hebrews as what is likely an early Christian homily. To understand how we should preach from the Bible, we ought to examine preaching in the Bible.

This doesn’t detract from the book’s many strengths. Primary amongst these is the way that Barth envisions the sermon as a movement, using almost geometric imagery in explaining the sermon on several different levels. The first picture Barth evokes is that of the relationship between the preacher, congregation, and Bible.

Bible and Congregation

The above picture Barth gleans from orthodox Reformed theology. In this picture the preacher stands as a mediator between the Bible and the congregation. He exegetes the text and shares its message with the congregation. The danger here is that the pastor serves as a kind of pope within his congregation. He is the authoritative voice, the one who is able to rule as to what Scripture really has to say to the congregation. But the pastor is not the mediator of the Word, God alone is. Therefore, the preacher can never stand between the congregation and the text without betraying both.

congregation bible

This next picture comes from Barth’s analysis of preaching in classical liberal theology. Here the Bible and pastor exist only within the sphere of the congregation. The pastor emerges from within the congregation to preach the Word that is filtered through the life of the congregation back to itself. The congregation might be hearing a message of great contemporary relevance but it isn’t hearing a sermon, it is merely talking to itself. The Word of God is a divine address to us from the outside, even though the Bible is the church’s book, we do not possess it, it possesses us. Certainly the Word speaks to the congregation, but it comes from the One who stands outside and above it.

The true picture (which, ironically enough, is actually too complicated to make into a picture) is that the congregation itself is constituted by the Word of God – Jesus Christ – who speaks in and through Scripture. The congregation stands under the Word, because it is a creation of the Word. The pastor stands beneath the congregation because he or she is called out from within the congregation for the special office of proclaiming the Word and administering the sacraments. The pastor doesn’t mediate the Word to the congregation, he serves the congregation by slavishly repeating to them the Biblical Word. The pastor preaches not because the congregation asks him to, but because he is under constraint to do so (1 Corinthians 9:16).

Preaching is an act of faith and obedience. It is an act of faith because only God can reveal Himself through the preaching of His Word. The preacher has absolutely no control over whether God will do so when he preaches. Without an act of God, preaching is just so much religious babbling, no matter how rhetorically powerful or well crafted the sermon. Preaching is an act of obedience because we preach in spite of our shortcomings, limitations, and total dependence upon the Holy Spirit to make our words God’s Word because that is what we are compelled to do in Christ. God commands us to preach and so we obey. There is no other justification that the preacher can give for the audacity to deign to proclaim God’s Word. The preacher cannot justify him or herself before the world, only God can.

All preaching is grounded in God’s self-revelation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This Word that became flesh will come again. Preaching is what takes place in the movement between the First Advent and Second, between Christmas and the Second Coming. True preaching takes its form, content, and destination from the Word, and so it must conform to the pattern of God’s self-revelation, as pictured below.

sermon revelationJesus Christ is the ground of preaching and its goal. Preaching that deviates from this course, that seeks another grounding and pursues another goal is not preaching. “The two points that determine whether a sermon is in accord with revelation are Christmas and the day of Christ. If preaching is within these two points, it conforms to revelation. All that is said must always be said between these two points” (55).

That God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ is an act of grace, and that God will reveal Himself fully at the end is our hope. Preaching is what takes place in the movement between this grace and this hope, and so preaching properly belongs to the sphere of the church, the sphere that exists between the sacrament of grace – baptism – and the sacrament of hope – the Lord’s Supper. Word and Sacrament must be joined together because preaching is nothing but commentary on the sacraments, commentary that moves between the truth of God’s electing grace in baptism and the hope of eternal life at the Lord’s table.

There is preaching in the full sense only when it is accompanied and explained by the sacraments. What happens in the sacraments is that with visible signs we are pointed to the event of revelation that underlies and is promised to the church, and this a way which, unlike that of preaching and all else the church does, is not just a matter of words, but of visible, bodily action (58).

Practically this means that the sermon should take place in worship after baptism and before the Lord’s Supper – which Barth believes should be celebrated weekly. Below are three pictures of these three movements of the sermon from grace to hope, from election to eternal life, and from baptism to the Lord’s Supper.

grace hope sermonelection eternal life sermonsacraments sermonOn the relationship between sermon and sacraments Barth says beautifully, “as a circle has both a center and a periphery, and neither is more important than the other, so both sermon and sacraments belong to worship in the full sense” (63).

But why must sermons be Biblical? Why not base them on other ancient literature, Christian or otherwise? Why not preach from the great devotional writings of the church? Certainly a sermon based on Teresa of Avila or Henri Nouwen would be more relevant and edifying than a sermon from the Book of Obadiah (who among us has really read, let alone preached on Obadiah?).

The reason that preaching must be Biblical is because revelation isn’t some general event or principle available to everyone. God’s self-revelation is concrete and particular. God has disclosed Himself to a particular people, Israel and now the church, and in a particular person, Jesus Christ, who comes from that particular people. Scripture is the concrete witness to this particular self-revelation, therefore preaching has no other ground than Scripture and it has no other goal than to proclaim what Scripture teaches. It is in Scripture that the prophets and apostles speak, and so it is from Scripture alone that we must preach. All preaching is tethered to the text, and the text must never become a pretext for some other message from some other place. Reflections on the Brothers Karamazov or The Chronicles of Narnia might be entertaining, interesting, and instructive, but they can never be preaching.

Because preaching is grounded in the concrete reality of God’s past self-revelation and geared toward God’s future full self-disclosure, then the sermon itself is what takes place in the movement between exposition and application. Preaching is the movement between “God said” and “God says.” This movement is pictured below:

explication application

“In a sermon, explication must relate to application as subject does to predicate” (112). The preacher doesn’t just preach on Paul, but through the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, he actually preaches as Paul to us and we become again the church at Corinth, Galatia, or Rome.

The Biblical Word isn’t a word addressed only to the people of the past, only to its original audience, because it is a witness to the Living Word it is addressed to us today. A sermon that only explains what the text “meant” and not what it “means” today isn’t a sermon at all, because it is of no use to congregation, apart from some perhaps interesting and esoteric knowledge about the Ancient Near East, Second Temple Judaism, or Primitive Christianity. Preaching follows the text but “moves on from it to the preacher’s own heart and to the congregation” (81). Barth characterizes the movement from explication to application, from the text to the congregation, as a journey on the “way of witness” (pictured below).

way of witness

What this means is that the sermon takes place in the journey between the Biblical witness and the contemporary congregation’s situation. The task of the preacher is “to repeat in our own terms for our own people what is there in the text” (109).

In a sermon we have to tread the way of witness in today’s situation. We must learn its direction from the text but follow it in our own situation. This will impose a limit on too strong an accentuation of historical events in preaching (105).

But won’t all this repetition and slavery to the text produce a bunch of boring sermons? By no means! Barth himself states simply, “Preachers must not be boring” (80) to which we can all say a hearty “Amen!” For Barth the only defense against sermons being boring is that they be 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 exiting to tell us that listeners cannot even think about dropping off to sleep” (80).

This fear of boring our congregations – and ourselves – strikes fear into the hearts of preachers. Especially young preachers, who come out of seminary full of fresh knowledge and unused sermon illustrations that they quickly exhaust in their first few years of ministry. Then comes the dreaded day when he or she is faced with a text and the creative well has run dry. For Barth, this dreaded day is actually a day of great opportunity, a day when the young preacher will move beyond the temptation to preach himself and his knowledge to actually preaching the Bible. When we stand before the empty cupboards of our own creativity and intellect we can either get desperate and gin up the worst sort of illustrations (of which there is a limitless supply); or we can dive head first into the world of the Bible. It is this latter choice which requires courage, faith, and obedience. The preacher must ask himself, do I really believe that God has spoken to us through this Word? Do I really believe that Scripture is all-sufficient for faith and life? Does it really speak with authority now as it did then? Only when faced with such questions from a place of complete emptiness and brokenness can a preacher really begin to preach. May every preacher find him or herself faced with this dilemma, and sooner rather than later.

In the final analysis, Barth doesn’t offer much practical advice for someone preaching in the 21st century. The book doesn’t contain any of his sermons – though a couple poor saps, Mr. J and Mr. H did have their sermon critiqued by the class, and unsurprisingly, they were found lacking – which would have helped to see how his theology of preaching played out in practice. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t address practical matters – selecting texts, rules for exegesis, writing a manuscript, etc. – but that there is really nothing special about what he says on these topics.

The real value of this work is its wholehearted emphasis that the preacher must preach the Bible and nothing else. It is our master, we are its slave, and it is only from this posture, from this power differential that we can truly preach. Humanly speaking, preaching is impossible. We can give a sermon, but only God can reveal Himself through His Word and Spirit. We are powerless in this act. However, it is precisely our powerlessness that allows us to be an instrument of God’s self-disclosure. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Because the task of preaching is impossible and the preacher is completely unworthy of it, all preaching must become prayer. It is this truth to which the preacher must return again and again.

[Preaching] must turn into the seeking and invoking of God, so that ultimately everything depends upon whether God hears and answers our prayer. This opening up to heaven must not be blocked by the triumphant coping of a majestic Gothic arch that shelters us from the gaze of heaven, for we are truly sheltered only when we are exposed before God. There is no place, then, for a victorious confidence in the success of our own action, but only for a willingness to open ourselves to heaven and to remain open to God, so that God himself can now come to us and give us all things richly. Our attitude then must be controlled from above: nothing from me, all things from God, no independent achievement, only dependence on God’s grace and will (90).





Leave a Reply