Karl Barth, Homiletics, trans. Geoffrey Bromily and Donald E. Daniels (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 136 pp., paper.
“Now I can preach again.” Those were the oft-quoted words of a young Scottish preacher after reading Karl Barth’s seminal work, The Word of God and the Word of Man, translated into English in 1928. The volume was the first major work by Barth to be translated into the English tongue, and the first readers to recognize its potency were preachers.
Barth remains the theological titan of the twentieth century. The century began with liberal theology in full flower, and it now appears that it will end amid a fog of revisionist theologies. The neo-orthodox experiment marked the high-water mark of the twentieth century’s attempt to meld revealed theology and Enlightenment modernity into an amalgam at home in both the university and the church.
Barth’s massive theological project was the most successful of these efforts, but his concessions to critical thought (especially his doctrine of Scripture) doomed his effort to failure. Nevertheless, Barth destroyed the liberal theology he inherited, and his system reveals an architectural beauty and theological engagement unparalleled in modern times.
Barth’s theology was not, however, a systematic expression designed for the academic seminar alone. It was intended to be preached. Barth insisted that the proper role of theology was to enrich and undergird the pulpit. A theology which was irrelevant to the preaching event was, to Barth’s thinking, not theology at all — perhaps philosophy or anthropology.
The translation of Barth’s Homiletics is itself an event. An earlier volume, The Preaching of the Gospel (1963), was based on student notes from Barth’s lectures. The present volume is drawn from the records of a seminar, “Exercises in Sermon Preparation,” conducted at Bonn in 1932 and 1933. Barth assisted in the editing of the German material in 1965.
Barth asserted that “theology as a church discipline ought in all its branches to be nothing other than sermon preparation in the broadest sense.” But Barth is not satisfied to consider preaching only in “its broadest sense.” Homiletics is a focused and concentrated engagement with the theory and practice of proclamation.
The volume begins with a historical review of homiletical theory in continental thought. Figures ranging from David Hollaz and Alaxandre Vinet to Friedrich Schleiermacher (Barth’s bete noir) are considered, and the contemporary American reader will quickly discern that the issues are current and constant.
Barth’s treatment of Schleiermacher is insightful and contemporary. Schleiermacher, Barth concedes, did bring the Word and the congregation together. Yet Barth is surely correct in asserting that Schleiermacher’s emphasis on “pious feeling” confuses the status of the Word, reducing it to the word of the congregation.
Barth then offers his own two-part definition of preaching: “1. Preaching is the Word of God which he himself speaks, claiming for the purpose the exposition of a biblical text in free human words that are relevant to contemporaries by those who are called to do this in the church that is obedient to his commission. 2. Preaching is the attempt enjoined upon the church to serve God’s own Word, through one who is called thereto, by expounding a biblical text in human words and making it relevant to contemporaries in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.”
Barth is characteristically Christocentric, suggesting that “the difficulty of preaching is none other than that of trying to say who and what Jesus Christ is.” Yet Barth also points preachers to the primacy of Scripture. Preachers are to expound the inscripturated Word with their own free words, but it is Scripture — not experience — which forms the basis and the meaning of the sermon.
As expected, Barth rejects any apologetic role in the sermon. Preaching is not to prove the truth of God, but simply to preach His Word: “There can be no other proof of God than that which God himself offers.”
Because of this (and consistent with his absolute rejection of natural theology), Barth rejects any introduction to the sermon. There is nothing introductory for the preacher to say. The Word needs no introduction, only explication. The function of an introduction is to establish some “point of contact” of the gospel with the mundane. But such a point of contact is, as Barth insists, a rejection of the gospel. “Only one kind of legitimate introduction is conceivable. When a scripture reading precedes the sermon, a link can be made with this…. This is the only possible form of introduction. All others are to be rejected in principle.”
The incarnation is the central truth of Christianity, and it must be the central theme of the pulpit. “In Christ God has made fallen humanity his own. Faced with the fall, God did not step angrily aside. Instead he has personally united himself with the race. Lost humanity has been called home.”
Christocentric preaching requires a consistently Christocentric thrust, “But this does not lie in the enthusiasm, faith, earnestness, or conviction of the preacher. The sermon takes on its thrust when it begins: ‘The Word became flesh eph’ hapax, once and for all,’ and when account of this is taken in every thought.”
Barth understood the true directional dynamic of the Christian sermon: “The need is not so much to get to the people as to come from Christ. Then one automatically gets to the people.” Barth’s words sound almost axiomatic, but much of what passes for preaching in modern American pulpits betrays a reversal of that dynamic. This reversal is found in liberal pulpits, where the worldview of the knowledge-elite is often stroked more than the Word is preached. It is also to be found in some evangelical churches, where therapeutic concerns now take primacy over the Word — all in the name of “reaching people at the point of their need.” Such an approach is, as Barth warned, a gross and tragic misconstrual of the actual need.
The sermon, if it is truly Christocentric, will also be inherently eschatological. The sermon — like the gospel itself — is a message of hope. Christian eschatology, asserted Barth, “is none other than Christology.” The eschaton, like the incarnation, is unconditional. Preaching, said Barth, is a race, “in the sense of Philippians 3.” He expanded: “Preachers who set out from a fixed starting point are the very ones who must press on, who must hunger and thirst, though always with the promise that they will be satisfied. The homiletic art is to speak about the present, about experience, about the new life that has appeared in history, but it may not do so except with a thrust toward tomorrow.”
“We are,” said Barth, “a people that walk in darkness. But we have seen a great light.” A sermon in accord with revelation will be aligned with the two foci of revelation: Christmas and the Day of Christ (incarnation event and eschaton). “All that is said must always be said between these two points.”
Yet Barth did not isolate the preacher from the church. On the contrary, he insisted that preaching must always “be done in the sphere of the church.” The church is constituted by revelation, and “conformity to the church follows conformity to revelation.”
Barth agreed with the definition of the church found in the Augsburg Confession; “where the gospel is purely taught and the sacraments rightly administered.” He took that definition seriously, insisting that the preaching events and the sacraments of the church must never be isolated from one another. The sacraments (Barth’s Reformed conception limited the sacraments, of course, to baptism and the Lord’s Supper) should frame the sermon, with baptism preceding the sermon and Communion at the end of the service.
Barth accused both Roman Catholicism and popular Protestantism with misunderstanding the sacraments; the Catholics raising them to idolatrous levels and the Protestants neglecting and isolating them altogether. Barth, who once described his dogmatic effort as an attempt to construct a formidable alternative to Roman Catholicism, did not point Protestants to the Catholic example. Conversely, he insisted that Protestants must recapture a proper sacramentalism in the context of worship. (Interestingly, Barth shifted his thought away from infant baptism and toward believers baptism in his later years.)
Barth’s section on preaching as confession is by itself worth the price of the book. In an age when many ask what preaching is supposed to do, Barth answers with a resounding No. Preaching is not designed to accomplish a purpose, other than confession of the gospel as found in Scripture. “When the church undertakes to proclaim the Word of God, this is not because it seeks to fulfill a plan or to serve an abstract purpose. Even the best purpose can have no place in a definition of what the church is doing.”
With astounding clarity, Barth avers that “The church is not a tool to uphold the world or to further its progress. It is not an instrument to serve either what is old or what is new. The church and preaching are not ambulances on the battlefield of life.”
Confession is not a matter of mere testimony. Barth elaborates: “Confession of faith cannot mean that we are expressing what lives in us, or that we are thinking certain things in common. Professio fidei (professing the faith) means stating what we believe, what we who say credimus (we believe) must believe and confess because we have been listening to revelation.”
Barth’s section on Scripture is, simultaneously, the glory and fatal weakness of his system. He calls preachers to exposition of Scripture as the only proper mode of proclamation. Preachers are not to preach their own systematic theology, current events, or their philosophy of life. Barth exhorted preachers to place their full confidence in Scripture. For the preacher to live by faith is to live by Scripture.
The text is not the preacher’s, for the proclaimer is merely the one who makes clear that “I have not written the text.” The preacher must listen to the text, dispensing with all the “dearest habits and best insights that I have — I must give them all up before listening.”
With this in mind, Barth offers three warnings. Preachers must not be puffed-up ‘clerics,’ who “attempt to represent the interests of the good Lord to the world.” Nor should they be visionaries: “Preaching that is biblical is never visionary, for holy scripture speaks to reality.” Lastly, the preacher must not be boring, even though “the pastor and boredom are (sometimes) synonymous concepts.” The only defense against boredom is being biblical. “If a sermon is biblical,” Barth maintained, “it will not be boring.”
The problem in Barth’s understanding of Scripture comes at the point of the event-character of the Word. Evangelicals should not rejects this event-character, for it is a part of the Bible’s witness to itself. But Barth’s insistence that the Bible “becomes God’s Word” in the concrete Context of an event betrays his refusal to tie his system to a fully authoritative Scripture. This is not an insignificant issue. Barth left no school of thought or circle of disciples. Those figures who followed him have generally been far less biblical than Barth exhorted.
But Barth’s Homiletics remains a treasure of twentieth-century homiletical thought. And it came from the mind, heart, and open of a theologian who did not merely think about preaching but was himself a preacher. His parish ministry in Safenwil attracted wide-spread attention. During his mature ministry as professor of dogmatics at the University of Basel, Barth preached regularly in the prisons, taking seriously Christ’s command to preach good news to the captives. Barth’s sermons and occasional messages are rich in content and they reveal the great heart and incredible mind of one of the great figures of the twentieth century.
As with the introduction to the sermon, Barth rejected a conclusion as both “dangerous and seductive.” He pointed instead to the word, “Amen.” This, Barth called “an important, comforting, and critical little word.” “From this little word,” Barth said, “we might unpack the whole doctrine of preaching.”

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