Ebionitism

In my last post I wrote about Docetism which is basically the denial of the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Ebionitism is the opposite heresy – the denial of the divinity of Jesus.

Ther term Ebionites is derived from the Hebrew word אביונים ebyonim, meaning “the poor” or “poor ones” and refers is to a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the first centuries of the Christian Church and still survives today. In my research on the Internet I was surprised to discover a website devoted to advocating Ebionitism: www.ebionite.org. The site declares, “Our desire is that you know we were the first and the only real ebionite site. We are not Christian, Messianic, and reject Jesus of Nazareth as a savior, a god, or messiah.”

Ancient Ebionites regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. The Ebionites used only one of the Jewish Gospels (perhaps an edition of the Gospel of Matthew), revered James the Just, and rejected Paul the Apostle as an apostate from the Law.

As their name suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty. Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect at Qumran that sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple. Bible scholars can be thankful that the people who lived in Qumran near the Dead Sea preserved and protected scrolls of the Scriptures as well as commentaries and sectarian writings. We know this ancient library as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The nature of Ebionite beliefs and practices is dependent almost entirely on secondary sources, the writings of early Christians who deemed them to be heretical. Consequently, very little about the Ebionite sect or sects is known with certainty, and most, if not all, statements about them are conjectural.

I believe that a form of Ebionitism exists today when people refer to Jesus as a great teacher and moral model who lived and taught in ancient Israel during the time of Roman occupation, but deny that he was God in the flesh. For all of its history the Christian Church has consistently taught that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and is true man and true God. To deny either the humanity or divinity of Jesus is to slip into heresy.

The Ancient Heresy of Docetism

Early in my project of reading all of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, I encountered two terms that I was aware of from my theological studies in seminary, but now couldn’t define or describe. Since Barth assumes that his readers will know these terms, he doesn’t bother to define them. The terms I’m referring to were identified as heresies in the first centuries of Christianity. They are Docetism and Ebionitism. In this post I’ll discuss Docitism and in the next post, I’ll write about Ebionitism.

The word Docetism is derived from the Greek word “dokeo” which means “to seem.” Docetism is the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth only seemed to have a physical body, that his physical body was either absent or an illusion, that Jesus only appeared to have a body.

This early Christian heresy grew out of a popular Greek philosophy called Gnosticism, the dualistic idea which viewed matter as inherently evil and that only spirit as good. Gnostics believed that God could not be associated with matter and that God, being perfect and infinite, could not suffer. Therefore, God as the word, could not have become flesh as stated in the Gospel of John 1:1, 14 (Common English Bible), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh, and made his home [literally: “tented”] among us . . . ” This denial of the incarnation would mean that Jesus did not truly suffer on the cross and that he did not rise from the dead.

As the message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus spread to the Greek world, early believers may have been tempted to embrace it as a form of super-spiritual Christianity. The letters of first and second John may include a direct refutations of Docetism. “This you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, 3 and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and now is already in the world” 1 John 4:2-3 (CEB). Also, 2 John 7 (CEB), “Many deceivers have gone into the world who do not confess that Jesus Christ came as a human being. This kind of person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

Docetic teaching was attractive to a minority of believers in the first centuries of the Christian Church. However it was unequivocally rejected by the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 and from that time on it has been regarded as a heretical teaching by all branches of the Christianity.

However, his ancient heresy reemerged in the teaching of Islam which has a docetic understanding of Jesus. The Qur’an views Jesus as a prophet and divine illuminator rather than the Redeemer. Islamic Docetism focuses on a denial of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Sura 4:157–158 reads: “And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger — they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise.”

Personally I have Muslim friends and neighbors whom I respect and admire. Muslims have participated in Bible study groups in my home. I have been enriched by frequent conversations via Skype with wonderful Palestinian Muslims living in Gaza City and in Hebron. There are many aspects of Islam that I find appealing, especially their devoted prayer practices from which I have much to learn. But we clearly disagree about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I believe that docetic tendencies continue to persist among Christians to this day. When we think that our bodies with all their appetites are evil compared to our spirits which are pure, we are being docetic. When we emphasize Jesus’ divinity more than his humanity, we are in danger of embracing the ancient heresy in our thinking.

The creation narratives of Genesis assert that God created everything and declared that it was very good. That includes our bodies. When the eternal Word of God revealed himself to humanity, it was as a real human baby born to human mother and father in the real town of Bethlehem in Roman occupied Judea. Jesus was no phantom pretending to be a man. He was a flesh and blood human being who new hunger and fatigue and all the temptations we face. He was nailed to a real Roman cross, but was raised bodily from the grave. That reality is at the heart of the Christian message. And that’s why Docetism is regarded as a heresy.

Luther

In my first few hundred pages of reading Church Dogmatics I kept encountering passages in the small print sections that were clear, clever and vividly expressed. I thought, Now Barth is writing in a way I can understand. Then, at the end of these statements, I would see that they were attributed to Luther. (The reason I initially thought that these statements came from Barth was that they were usually not marked off by quotation marks.) As with the name John Calvin, Barth always uses just the last name of these prominent Reformers: Luther and Calvin.

Two things became readily apparent in these quotes from Luther:
-Barth was very fond of Luther whom he seems to quote on nearly every other page.
-Luther was a much better writer than Barth.

My own response to Martin Luther is mixed, even conflicted. I have always admired Luther’s courage to question the Church with his 95 Theses posted on the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany. I admired his heroism in refusing to recant from his teachings when he appeared before before Emperor Charles V. I’ve appreciated Luther’s understanding of the Christian message of the Good News that we are justified in God’s sight by grace through faith, and not on the basis of our good works. I was impressed to learn that the prior monk abandoned his vows of celibacy to marry Katharina von Bora who left a convent to be his wife. Together they had six children. Luther was familiar enough Hebrew and Greek to translate the Bible into German. Thanks to the newly invented printing press, Luther’s translation was widely read in Germany and is credited with standardizing the German language. Luther’s theological insight and personal boldness began the Protestant Reformation. The fact that Barth quotes Luther so frequently is an indication of Luther’s lasting impact on the Church and the study of theology.

It was not until some years after I graduated from seminary that I discovered something about Luther that was extremely unsettling. Martin Luther wrote one of the most terrible essays against Jews imaginable. In an treatise called “On the Jews and their Lies” Luther used shockingly vulgar language to advocate setting fire to Jewish synagogues and schools, taking away their homes, forbidding them to pray or teach, or even to utter God’s name. Luther wanted to “be rid of them” and requested that the government and ministers deal with the problem. He requested pastors and preachers to follow his example of issuing warnings against the Jews.
Martin-Luther
Defenders of Luther try to excuse the great reformer by explaining that he wrote his terrible essay toward the end of his life in 1543, three years before his death at the age of 63, and that he suffered from multiple debilitating illnesses during the last 15 years of his life. Others point out that Luther lived in a time when antisemitism was common.

I do not find these excuses persuasive. Luther’s antisemitic essay is serious blotch on his career and Christians today should repudiate it, not excuse it.

Not surprisingly, the Natzis quoted Luther’s essay as part of their propaganda against Jews. It is terrible to realize that the vile words of the revered reformer were used to support the Holocaust that consumed over six million Jews.

I’m left with haunting questions: How could someone who was so right about understanding the basic Christian message be so wrong in his antisemitism? To what extent can I regard Luther’s writings as useful? Should I ignore all that he has to say or be selective in my appreciation? I also wonder to what extent Barth was aware of Luther’s antisemitism. As I continue to read Church Dogmatics, I will pay attention to Barth’s use of Luther and remember that even the admirable followers of Jesus, can be deeply flawed.

Archeology

Reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and writing about it is a lot like doing archeology. During the ten months I lived and studied in Jerusalem from 1975 to 1976 I learned about the science of archeology, visited many tels in Israel/Palestine, and participated as a volunteer in an excavation just south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Throughout the Holy Land are many mounds called tels beneath which often lie  layers of past civilizations. When archeologists first approach a tel that has not been excavated, they will initially dig quadrants in places where they think it is most likely that they will discover hidden structures. Nearly all archeological excavations or “digs” are seasonal, using volunteers only in the summer months. As digs carefully progress, discoveries of physical remains such as coins and pottery are analyzed and compared to known samples. Specialists measure structures, take photographs and make drawings. Others record their findings in meticulous field notes. It is often years before all these findings are assembled in a coherent way and published for the general public to read.

One important rule I learned about archeology is that responsible archeologists will never try to excavate an entire tel. They are aware that technical advances to their science will enable archeologists of the future to do a better job of digging and interpreting their findings.

To me Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics is like an enormous tel. I have made some initial probing excavations with my first attempts to write something meaningful about what I’ve read. Since I began this project on April 8, 2015, I have managed to read at least ten pages of the 14 volume work every day. I began this website about a month later. Now I’m discovering that my reading has far outpaced my writing. It has become apparent that I will not be able to comment on everything I read or even make observation on all the subjects of Barth’s work. So I’ve decided to work like an archeologist and pass over many parts of Church Dogmatics for now with the possibility that I may be able to return to them later when I have a greater understanding of Barth’s theology.

In upcoming posts, I plan to write about the following diverse subjects: Luther, the humorous end of vol.1, Docetism, Ebionitism, Christian music, Barth’s style compared to Zen “koans,” and Mary. Soon I hope to be able to comment on what I read while it is fresh in my mind. I don’t know what I will unearth in Barth’s big tel, but I’m looking forward to the discoveries.

The Doctrine of the Trinity

Christians are monotheists; we believe in one God. We believe that the one God is a triune God existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The earliest formal creed of the Church dating from the Fourth Century is called the Nicene Creed. It asserts belief in one God who is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This belief that God is three in one is referred to as the Trinity.

The Trinity a problematic doctrine. For one thing the word Trinity never appears in the Bible. The term is not even used in the earliest creeds of the Church. The first use the word Trinity I can find in an official creed of the Church doesn’t occur until the Second Helvetic Confession in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, the doctrine of the Trinity opens up Christians to the accusation that we are really tritheists.

Since the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult to understand, it is rarely addressed from the pulpit. If you’ve gone to church most of your life and listened to countless sermons, as I have, you have most likely heard very few sermons on the Trinity. This year I was present for one sermon on “Trinity Sunday” and read another. Neither sermon tried to explain what is meant by the word Trinity other than mentioning that we understand one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I don’t recall ever reading a book about the Trinity.

In spite of these difficulties, fearless Karl Barth, the man who was a street fighter as a teenager and who later, as a university professor, publicly opposed Hitler, is not afraid to write at length about the Trinity. Starting with Chapter II in volume one of Church Dogmatics Barth writes 194 pages about the Triune God. In Volume 2 (which I’m reading now) he continues his writing about the Trinity for at least 400 more pages as he focuses on the incarnation of the Word and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

One of my main take aways thus far from reading Church Dogmatics is a new understanding and appreciation of the Triune God we Christians worship. Here are a few things I think I understand from Barth’s view of the Trinity:

1) He says that revelation is the basis of the Trinity and in a full page (p. 313) of small print he references the following Biblical verses which support the idea of the Trinity: Isaiah 61:1f, Matthew 28:19, Romans 1:1-4 and 11:38, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, I John 5:7f, 1 Peter 1:2, Revelation 1:4, 2 Corinthians 13:12, Mark 1:9f, Jude 20-21, 1 Corinthians 12:4f, Ephesians 4:4f. These are among the biblical passages that suggest that God is a triune entity. They are not proof texts, but part of the evidence that led theologians to use the term Trinity. For instance, Matthew 28:19 is a statement from Jesus instructing his followers to go into all the world and make disciples baptizing them “in the name [not names] of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

2) Barth acknowledges that the doctrine of the Trinity is a problem.

3) He says that there is no good analogy to the Trinity, but the best analogy is the Word of God which comes to us in three forms: spoken word in preaching, written word in the Bible, and revealed word in God’s specific acts of unveiling. (I always thought that water, H2O, was a good analogy to the Trinity because it exists in three forms – solid, liquid and gas. But I think Barth doesn’t approve of this analogy because he persistently and radically asserts that there is no continuity between our human thinking and God’s being.)

4) Barth prefers to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three modes of being rather than three persons.

5) Professor Barth sides with the Western Church regarding the clause “from the Father and the Son” (Latin: ex Patre Filioque) in the Nicene Creed. This little phrase is the center of a huge theological dispute between the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Western (Catholic) Church. If I can muster sufficient courage, I will write about this phrase in the future.

6) “God is always a mystery” (p 321). I remember my college pastor, Don Williams saying, “You think you understand the doctrine of the trinity? Oh, no you don’t.”

Finally, in one of his long small print sections, Barth quotes (in Latin) one of the early Protestant Reformers named Melanchthon who wrote, “We will have done better to adore the mysteries of the divinity than to investigate them.” Although Barth doesn’t agree with this cautionary statement, I think it is sound advice.

The Word of God Revealed

As I try to understand what Barth is saying in Church Dogmatics and write something meaningful about it, I become painfully aware of my limited ability to understand and more limited ability to articulate what I barely understand. This is particularly true regarding what Barth calls the Word of God revealed.

I have had to read this section again and parts of it multiple times; and still I’m still not confident I can pin down what Barth is saying about the Word of God revealed.

Barth begins his section on “The Word of God Revealed” by adding more thoughts about the Bible and Proclamation. He says, “The Bible, speaking to us and heard by us as God’s Word, bears witness to past revelation. Proclamation, speaking to us and heard by us as God’s Word, promises future revelation.” (p. 111). Later he says, “…revelation is originally and directly what the Bible and Church proclamation are derivatively and indirectly, i.e. God’s Word” (p. 117).

If I understand Barth, he is saying that the Bible is the written word of God and proclamation or preaching is the spoken word of God. And that the Bible and proclamation are both derived from the Word of God which is direct revelation. The closest Bart comes to a definition of revelation is this: “It is rather the event in which the free God causes His free grace to rule and work” (p. 117). He also says, “To say revelation is to say ‘The Word became flesh’” (p. 119).

From what I have read of Barth elsewhere, Church Dogmatics is derived from lectures he gave as a professor of theology at various universities in Germany and Switzerland. If I had been a student in Professor Barth’s class and heard this section on the Word of God revealed as a lecture, I would have raised my hand to ask professor Barth a few questions:

“Dr. Barth, do I understand you correctly to say that Jesus himself is the word of God revealed?”
“Would you include the instances recorded in the Bible when God spoke to the patriarchs and Moses and the prophets as the Word of God revealed?”
“And would you include include God’s revelation to Paul on the Damascus road and John on the Island of Patmos as instances of God’s Word revealed?”
“And if I recall correctly, the book of Hebrews starts out by saying that God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets in a variety of ways. Is this also a reference to the Word of God?”

I can imagine Professor Barth answering me by saying, “Thank you for those questions. It appears you know the Bible well, at least for an American. The general answer to your questions is Yes. God in his freedom has chosen to unveil himself at different times and in different ways. It is this event of unveiling that we call revelation.”

The Bible is the Word of God

One of the battlefields of theology at least in America is the nature of Scripture. Is the Bible inspired, inerrant, infallible? Or is it just an old collection of myths and fantasies written by unenlightened, pre-scientific religious fanatics? Many who call themselves Evangelicals would use the words inerrant and infallible to describe the Bible. They might add that it is infallible in its original autographs. (Since we do not have any of these original autographs, but only copies that differ from each other, that seems to me like a meaningless distinction.) Other Evangelicals who may also call themselves Progressives prefer to describe the Bible as inspired rather than infallible. It may reflect the language and culture in which it was written and may contain some errors of fact, but it is still the Word of God.

In the section I read entitled “The Word of God Written,” Barth doesn’t use the categories of the debate in America. Instead he starts by talking about the Church’s proclamation which is based on past revelation and in expectation of future revelation. He asserts that the basis for this recollection of the Church is Holy Scripture. Barth calls attention to the Canon of Scripture and he reminds us in one of his small print sections that the word canon is from Greek and means rod, then ruler, standard, model, assigned district. He writes that for the first three hundred years of the Church the term Canon (which he always capitalizes) was used to mean that which stands fast as normative, that is apostolic or the Church’s doctrine of faith. Then from the fourth century onwards the term took on the more specialized idea of the Canon of Holy Scripture meaning the list of biblical books which are recognized as normative, because apostolic (p. 101).

At this point Barth doesn’t explore the subject of the formation of the Canon as fascinating as that may be, Instead he focuses on the fact of its existence that is “concretely external” and refers to it as “the working instructions or marching orders by which not just the Church’s proclamation but the very Church itself stands or falls” (p. 101). Later Barth asks, “What is it that makes the Bible of the Old and New Testaments the Canon?” (p. 107). He answers by saying It is the Canon because it imposed itself upon the Church as such, and continually does so” (p. 107).

Barth refers to Holy Scripture as the written proclamation of what was once proclamation by human lips. In that way it is more concrete than the word of mouth tradition of the Church. The Canon, Barth asserts, is what guides the Church, not an oral tradition or apostolic tradition as in the Roman Catholic Church. He says, “The apostolic succession of the Church must mean that it is guided by the Canon, that is, by the prophetic and apostolic word as the necessary rule of every word that is valid in the Church” (p. 104).

Barth writes, “The Bible, speaking to us and heard by us as God’s Word, bears witness to past revelation” (p. 111) “The Bible is not in itself and as such God’s past revelation” (p. 111) “Witnessing means pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another” (p. 111). In a small print section, Bart makes the analogy of the Bible to John the Baptist in a painting of the crucifixion. Barth says that the Bible is like John the Baptist’s “prodigious index finger” which points away from himself to Christ. Barth also says that what we have in the Bible are human attempts to repeat and reproduce the Word of God in human words and thoughts and in specific human situations.

aaa GrunewaldI read in Eberhard Busch’s biography of Barth that the prolific theologian constantly had a painting before him as he worked – “The Crucifixion from the Isenheim altar, Colmar, by Matthais Grünwald a detail of which I have copied here. In it you can see John the Baptist pointing to Christ. Barth says that the Bible is like the finger of John the Baptist pointing not to itself, but to Christ.

 

 

More Aspects of Preaching as the Word of God

In my last post I commented on three aspects of preaching as Karl Barth described it. Today I continue my comments on four additional aspects of preaching.

4) “to express in his own words”
Preaching is not just repeating what is written in the Bible. It is retelling the biblical story or explaining biblical concepts with contemporary language. I recently heard a sermon about the the Israelites wandering for forty days in the desert that was retold with humor and a contemporary application. Just yesterday I heard a fine sermon on the book of Jonah that brought it to life with contemporary applications.

5) “and make intelligible to the men [and women] of his generation”
The preacher’s speech needs to make sense to the preacher’s contemporaries. Good sermons deal with the issues of the day. There is a well-known quote from Martin Luther that I have not been able to track down. He reputedly once said, “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

The great temptation of preachers is to avoid the issues of the day because they are usually controversial and may upset some people in the congregation who may decide to leave the church or worse yet, gang up against the preacher and force him to leave the church. Issues like abortion, global warming, immigration, and homosexuality are just a few of the contemporary issues most preachers are afraid to touch. So much preaching today is bland and boring because it fails to address the issues of people in the pews.

In March of this year I attended a conference called “A Stirring – Conversations About Loving and Including Gay Christians in Our Churches.” One of the impressive speakers was Danny Cortez, pastor of New Heart Community Church. Pastor Cortez told us that when he came to believe that gay people should be fully included in the fellowship of the church, he felt impelled to tell his congregation, but feared that he would lose them. He preached on this issue anyway, but the church members didn’t leave. Most of the congregation stayed with him and, after a period of intensive study of the issue of homosexuality in the Bible, decided to become a church that fully accepts gay people into its fellowship. Nevertheless this decision was not without cost because Pastor Cortez was summoned before leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention which ultimately decided to dismiss the entire congregation from the denomination.

6) “the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God”
Here Barth mentions some of the content of Scripture. These are a few of the big, important themes of the Word of God in the Bible that preacher’s should address. Barth writes about these themes in great detail. The Doctrine of Reconciliation alone takes up four volumes of Church Dogmatics.

7) “as they are to be expected here and now”
The purpose of preaching is not to satisfy our antiquarian interest, but to help us understand what God is doing now. Early in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrator Huck tells about his Aunt Polly’s attempt to give him some Bible history:

After supper she got out her book and learned me about
Moses and the Bulrushes; and I was in a sweat to find
out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses
had been dead a considerable long time; so then
I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take
no stock in dead people.

Good preaching is not simply about dead people, but about how God is working in the lives of the living. By the way, Mark Twain’s casual reference to Moses in the bulrushes introduces a central theme in his novel. There are obvious parallels between Huckleberry Finn and Moses. Both Moses and Huck Finn are wards of women of the upper class, the slave-owning class. Moses freed the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt and Huck aids a Southern slave in his flight from his master. Both Moses and Huck Finn are outlawed boys who escape by a river: Moses in a basket of bulrushes on the Nile and Huck by a raft down the Mississippi. So Mark Twain’s famous novel is like a good sermon in that he deals with the controversial issue of slavery by retelling a story of liberation in his own words.

Before reading Church Dogmatics, I don’t think I regarded preaching as the word of God. I have now started to listen a little more intently to sermons. I listen with with more of an expectation that God may use this ancient human art form to speak directly to me.

Aspects of Preaching

Karl Barth was a preacher. For ten years he served as the pastor of a church in the little Swiss village of Safenwil. Later, as a professor of theology in Basel, he preached regularly to the inmates at the local prison. A primary purpose for writing Church Dogmatics was to help preachers. The last volume of his work contains “Aids For the Preacher” which consists of appropriate Scripture passages and relevant extracts from Church Dogmatics for every Sunday of the year.

I previously quoted Barth’s description of preaching which I repeat here because I want to look at it in some detail. He asserts that preaching is proclamation and describes it as “the attempt by someone called thereto in the Church, in the form of an exposition of some portion of the biblical witness to revelation to express in his own words and make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God as they are to be expected here and now” (p. 56 of Volume I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God; the following page references are from the same volume.)

I see in Barth’s description of preaching at least seven aspects or characteristics of preaching. Today I’ll make brief comments on three of these aspects of preaching and, in a following post, I will comment on the rest.

1) “the attempt”
Karl Barth knows that not all preaching succeeds. He looked back on his own preaching which reflected his liberal theological education and regarded it as flawed. I can look back on my preaching and see that many times my attempts failed. I often did not sufficiently apply biblical truth to the practical issues the people in my congregation were facing. But sometimes, by the grace of God, my attempts succeeded and God used my preaching to touch people’s lives. One of the churches I served was the First Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, Colorado. I left that church in 1978. In the year 2009, with the approval of the current pastor, I visited the church in Grand Junction again and was greeted with warmth by the congregation. One of the elders made a point of telling me that he became a follower of Jesus Christ because of me.

2) “by someone called thereto in the Church”
One control over preaching is that it is to be done by someone who is called by the Church. Barth quotes Martin Luther who wrote with characteristic vividness, “Tarry, beloved, until God bid thee, until thou hast certainty and boldness of heart. Yea, wert thou wiser and cleverer than Solomon and Daniel, thou shouldest flee as from hell from speaking a single word, except thou shouldest be bidden and called thereto. If God need thee, He will surely call thee. If He call thee not, beloved, let not thy skill tear open thy belly. Thou thinkest foolishly of the good and piety… thou wouldest achieve. Believe me, none will do any good by preaching except he who is bidden and forced to preach without his own will or desire” (p. 53).

The late Henrietta Mears was the director of Christian Education at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood for many years. She was instrumental in encouraging many men to go into full time Christian ministry. But she always said, “Don’t go into full time Christian ministry if you can do anything else.” By that she didn’t mean If you have no ability to pursue another career; she meant that you should only go into full time Christian service if you felt such a strong call that psychologically you were not able to do anything else.

The call to preach is confirmed by the Church and tested by the rigorous requirements of theological education as well as practical work in the Church. Last Saturday I attended the inspiring ordination of a young woman named Allison E. Becker into the Presbyterian Church (USA). Allison’s initial impulse to preach was confirmed by many people who told her that she had a call to full time professional ministry in the church. Many years of theological education and service also confirmed her call. Finally Allison received a specific call to serve a Presbyterian church in Edinburgh, Scotland. When the people there soon here the Reverend Ms. Becker preach, they will know that she is a woman “called thereto in the Church.”

3) “in the form of an exposition of some portion of biblical witness to revelation”
Preaching is an art form as much as is writing a poem or a novel. But it is an art form that is dependent on the Bible for its subject matter. An informative lecture or stirring speech is not preaching unless it exposits the Bible. The word exposition comes from Latin and means “a showing forth.” Exposition generally includes giving background information about events and people as well as explaining words and phrases.

In my next post, I’ll comment on additional aspects of preaching according to Karl Barth’s description.

Preaching is the Word of God

As I mentioned in a previous post, Karl Barth says that there are three forms of the word of God: preaching, the Bible and revelation. Today I begin to deal with what he says about preaching or more precisely proclamation.

Here is Barth’s definition of proclamation: “Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together” (from Church Dogmatics Volume I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God p. 52 – as are all the following page references).

Negatively Barth says that not all talk about God is proclamation. He says that it is not the social work of the church (which he calls active love). It is not the Church’s education of youth. It is not theology ( pp. 50,51).

I think I understand enough of Barth to say that one of the major aspects of his theology is the idea of the freedom of God. God can do whatever God wants. Barth says that God can speak to us however he wants. “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation” (p. 55). He goes on to say that we may “rightly think that we have heard the Word of God in the worship and active love and youth education and theology of the Church known to us” (p. 55). Yet Barth insists that these activities are not specifically proclamation.

For Barth “proclamation is preaching” and he describes it as “the attempt by someone called thereto in the Church, in the form of an exposition of some portion of the biblical witness to revelation to express in his own words and make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God as they are to be expected here and now” (p. 56).

I want to note here that Barth regularly uses language that excludes women. I regard this as one of his blind spots and in a later post I will comment more completely about this deficiency in his writing, but for now I just want to let you know that I am aware of this “sexist” language.

In my next post I will consider Barth’s description of preaching in more detail.