Essay / Blog

Karl Barth: The Word of God and Theology

Karl Barth, The Word of God and Theology, trans. Amy Marga (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 242 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

Annie Dillard once wrote that she did ‘not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.’

Stirring words, these, with their juxtaposition of Sinaitic God of Scripture and the soporific habits of North American churches.

And that’s just for your average person in the pews. Imagine if you were the preacher?!

Karl Barth does exactly that in this new translation (complete with meticulous notes and introductions by Amy Marga) of essays previously known as The Word of God and the Word of Man. He imagines what it could possibly mean to call the preaching of God’s Word itself a form of the Word of God (as the 2nd Helvetic Confession did). Barth considers the crisis in which the preacher is placed when given the task to proclaim the Word of God. How can one possibly be expected to speak God’s Word? Or, how can one possibly identify one’s own words from the pulpit with the Word of God?

Barth is no triumphalist. He recognizes that God’s demands on our speech are as absolute as our failure to meet them is abject. It’s not for nothing that the standard move of the prophets was to run for the hills. They knew–far better than we–how undesirable the vocation of speaking God’s Word could be. He insists that ‘we…should be shocked. What are you doing, you human, with God’s Word upon your lips? How do you come to play the role of the mediator between heaven and earth?’ Barth is blunt: ‘Who deserves the wrath of God more than us pastors?’ (Bless him for that inclusive pronoun.)

All this, in a long 1922 essay on ‘The Need and Promise of Christian Proclamation’! Need there is, obviously, because we must hear the voice of God. But precisely in that his voice is not our voice, in that only God is fit to speak of God–a conviction that drives Barth’s entire career–the ‘promise’ of Christian proclamation seems to stand on shaky ground.

Barth puts it concisely when considering the task of theology: ‘As theologians, we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and as such cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the “ought” and the “not able to,” and precisely in this way give God the glory. This is our plight. Everything else is child’s play in comparison.’

But with God all things are possible. And even pastors and theologians can receive grace–grace which comes first in the form of judgment, to be sure, unmasking their (our!) pretense and pitiful self-reliance, our little lies and big egos, our lazy inertia. Grace’s judgment leaves the pastor on the side of the congregation–sinners without a leg to stand on before the crucified Christ. ‘We become worthy of being believed only by acknowledging our own unworthiness. Compelling talk of God only occurs when Christian proclamation itself stands in the middle of need, under the cross, in the question that God himself first poses so that God could answer it. We dare not wish to get out of this need.’ We dare not exchange a theology of the cross for a theology of glory.

So when asked about ‘my theology’, Barth points to an ancient invocation: ‘Come Creator, Holy Spirit!’, a prayer ‘more hopeful than triumphant’, never a foregone conclusion, but always a sturdy hope that justifies talk of the ‘promise’ of Christian proclamation. For when one preaches the Word of God in the hope and power of the Spirit, one stands within ‘the living circle of Scripture and Spirit’ as only (but really) ‘a minister, as a servant, of the divine Word.’

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