The Early Preaching of Karl Barth

November 13, 2018 by Joe Small

Augustine heard the voice of a child saying, “Take and read, take and read.” He opened a Bible, began to read, and was set on the path of committed discipleship and faithful pastoral ministry as the Bishop of Hippo and a theologian for the ages. Let's assume that pastors do not need to be encouraged to read the Bible. But what else can we read that will enhance our preaching, teaching, and pastoral care?

Suggestion for November reading:

  • Karl Barth & William H. Willemon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009. 

Before Karl Barth was Karl Barth the famous theologian he was Karl Barth the pastor of a small church in Safenwil, a remote, insignificant Swiss village. Like most pastors, he preached Sunday after Sunday, and like many pastors, he was tormented by the relentless weekly demand that he have something to say. He acknowledged that “preaching gets more difficult for me all the time.” Normal pastor difficulty was deepened by disillusionment with his university teachers, classic liberal theologians who eagerly supported Germany's part in the “Great War” that was ravaging Europe. That led Barth to begin reading the Bible as if for the first time. Difficulty also came from his effort to hear Scripture anew and to speak Scripture anew to his congregation.

The Early Preaching of Karl Barth gives us fourteen of Barth's sermons, preached between 1917 and 1920. They show us a young preacher striving to introduce a congregation to the “strange new world of the Bible.” The sermons pre-date Barth's theological project, and yet they point toward the later theological work. The preacher's impossible possibility of speaking God is also the impossible possibility of theology.

Yet there is a crucial difference between the preacher and the theologian. As Will Willimon says in the instruction to this collection of Barth's early sermons, “A preacher, unlike an academic theologian, cannot postpone a verdict, cannot avoid a weekly, public declaration of God. A preacher must preach even if the preacher feels (as Barth did) that it is impossible to preach.”

Reading Barth's early sermons a hundred years after they were preached allows us to hear a preacher teaching both the Bible and the congregation seriously, in full recognition of the impossible possibility of speaking and hearing God. There is no hint of glib pandering to the real or imagined needs of people, but a genuine recognition of their capacity to hear God's truth. Yet each sermon is also marked by the realization that to say “God” is to create a crisis of misunderstanding and lack of comprehension that only becomes new understanding by God's self-revelation.

Each of the sermons in The Early Preaching of Karl Barth is accompanied by Will Willimon's helpful commentary, enabling us to see a preacher struggling to speak God's truth, and prompting us to see the necessity that we too must struggle to speak God's truth.

“Dear friends!” says the young preacher at the opening of a sermon on Mark 10:46-52. “Dear friends! A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What should we think about this? Here we have, in only a few words, not only the sad fate of a man, but also the entire misery of humanity itself. Here we have, in all brevity, what ‘life' can make of us today; what it can make for me tomorrow. What it can make of you…” So begins a sermon about Bartimaeus and a sermon about us, blind beggars all, and a sermon about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

December Lectionary Preview

Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska penned the December lectionary preview, writing about how the notion of gift-giving during this season has become so distorted with consumerism, that the seasons of Advent and Christmas offer the church the opportunity to provide a powerful and counter-cultural witness. You can read his lectionary preview here. If you would like to read the November lectionary preview, you can find that here.

Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday is an annual, global day of giving that follows two of the biggest shopping days of the year; Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Your Presbyterian Church can create a successful campaign for Giving Tuesday, receiving gifts from members of your congregation. Resources are available to assist you with a successful Giving Tuesday!