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.

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