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.

A Tribute to Francis Lee Goff

Occasionally I’ll take a break from my Church Dogmatics project to write about something else. Today I pay tribute to my late father, Francis Lee Goff, who was born on this day, June 2, 1915, one hundred years ago.

He was the last of a family of nine children born in central Illinois. His father, William Goff, worked in communications for the railroads which meant he was proficient in the use of Morse Code. Carrie Goff, his mother was the daughter of a Civil War veteran who had lost a hand in combat. Although Carrie never went beyond elementary school, she knew the value of education and each of her nine children graduated from college and became teachers at one point in their lives.

The experience of being the youngest child in the family shaped my dad’s outlook on life. It made him an advocate for people whom others might overlook as insignificant. One such person was a young man named Elmer Vogel. Since I have a tape recording of my dad telling this story, I can relate it in detail.

During World War II my parents lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and my dad was working for a little start-up company there which had been incorporated in 1939 as McDonnell Aircraft Company. (Later it became McDonnell Aircraft and today we know it as Boeing.) Dad was also teaching classes at various schools in St. Louis: Washington University, Jefferson College, and Hadley Technical High School. He taught one night a week at each of them. One purpose of his teaching was to try to recruit employees for McDonnell because at that time there was a manpower shortage because so many men were going into military service.

In one of Dad’s classes there was a young student named Elmer Vogel. Dad gave a mechanical aptitude test and an intelligence test to everyone in his classes and noticed that Elmer Vogel did very well on both tests. At that time Elmer was working as a messenger boy at Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis, for $18 a week.

McDonnell Aircraft Company had launched a training program which led to employment at the company. Trainees in the program were paid only $15 a week. My dad encouraged Elmer to quit his $18 a week job and take the $15 a week work as a trainee. Initially Elmer was reluctant to take such a drastic cut in pay, but my dad persisted and Elmer took the training course and went to work at McDonnell.

Not long after that, the company announced that any of the engineering
students could take a course in stress analysis. If they passed the course, they would get a raise of five cents an hour. However only college graduates were allowed to take the course and Elmer Vogel had only a high school education. To overcome this, my dad went to talk to his boss, the vice president of the company, and said, “Why don’t you let Elmer take this course? It won’t hurt anything for him to take it and if he passes it, it will be outstanding; and if he doesn’t, it won’t be any loss.” Dad’s boss was persuaded and agreed that Elmer could take the course which he did and passed it with a grade of A.
Dad left McDonnell during the war to become a naval officer, and in 1949 he moved with my mom, my sister Nancy, and me to California.

Many years later on a visit to St. Louis, Dad dropped by McDonnell and asked a receptionist, “Does Elmer Vogel still work here?”

The receptionist said that he did.
Dad said, “Get him on the phone for me, will you?”

The receptionist said, “Oh, I don’t know about that. Mr. Vogel is an important executive here.”

“Just call him and tell him I’m on the phone.”

So the receptionist called him. Dad said, “What’s his job now?”

She said, “He’s the director of industrial relations for the whole of McDonnell Corporation.”

When they got Mr. Vogel on the phone, Dad said, “This is Frank Goff.”

Mr. Vogel said, “Not the Frank Goff?”

“Yea, the Frank Goff.”

So Elmer Vogel came rushing over to see Frank Goff, the Frank Goff, the man who had urged a messenger boy with a high school education to take a cut in pay to train for a new job, the man who had seen his potential and had convinced his boss to take a chance on him.

I have no idea how many people like Elmer Vogel were impacted by my dad’s persistent encouragement, but I know I am one of them. And I am grateful.

“A ducky and a horsie”

Since I began my project of reading all of Church Dogmatics on April 8 of this year, I have completed the 489 pages of volume one in the hardbound edition and I have reached page 215 in the second volume. So I’ve covered 704 pages of the most challenging work I’ve ever tried to read. Now I face the daunting task of getting my writing on Church Dogmatics to catch up with my reading.

Many times in the course of my grappling with the meaning of Karl Barth’s massive work, I’ve recalled one of my favorite “Peanuts” comic strips by the late Charles M. Schultz. After a brief search on the Internet, I found this comic strip which first appeared 1960. It features Lucy, Linus and good ol’ Charlie Brown outside lying on their backs and musing about the clouds floating overhead.

Lucy says: “If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. What do you think you see, Linus?”

In the following frames, Linus says: “Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of British Honduras on the Caribbean.”

Linus continues, “That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen…I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side…”

In the next frame Lucy says, “Uh huh…That’s very good…What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”

In the final frame Charlie Brown says, “Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind!”

As I try to recall what I have seen so far in Church Dogmatics, I can identify with Charlie Brown. I suspect that there are profound philosophical issues and deep theological insights that I have missed, and that all I can report are some simple things I’ve observed. That’s what I intend to do in the following posts on this website. So don’t expect more than “a ducky and a horsie.”

For instance, I can report that the first two volumes of Church Dogmatics are entitled “The Doctrine of the Word of God.” One of the simple things I’ve observed early in my reading is that Karl Barth says that the Word of God comes in three forms: in preaching, in the Bible, and in revelation. In coming posts I’ll try to explain what the famous Swiss theologian says about these forms of the Word of God.

Church, Theology, and Science

“As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.” That is Karl Barth’s headline as he begins Church Dogmatics in the first volume of what became an enormously long work. Under this headline are three words which form a title for the first section of the work: The Church, Theology, and Science. What does Karl Barth have to say initially about each of these terms?

Church
Barth writes that dogmatics is a theological discipline and that theology is a function of the Church. “The Church confesses God as it talks about God” (page 3). Barth says that the Church does this “first by its existence in the action of each individual believer. And it does so secondly by its specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and administering the sacraments, in worship, and in its internal and external works of love among the sick, weak and those in jeopardy.” (page 3) To say that Church engages in theology means that it talks about God. The word theology comes from two Greek words: theos meaning God and logos meaning word. Barth also issues a cautionary word about the Church when he writes, “It realizes that it is exposed to fierce temptations as it speaks of God, and it realizes that it must give an account to God for the way in which it speaks” (page 3).

Theology
In the broad sense of the term, everyone does theology in that everyone talks about God. But Barth writes that in a more narrow sense there are three overlapping specialized areas of theology:
1) Biblical theology, which is the question of the basis of theology,
2) Practical theology, which is the question of the goal of theology, and
3) Dogmatic theology, which is the question of the distinctive utterance of the Church. In small print Barth refers to Church history as “an auxiliary science indispensable to exegetical, dogmatic and practical theology” (p. 5)

In seminary I was exposed to each of these areas of theology, but I focused more on the first two. First, I concentrated on biblical theology including learning both Greek and Hebrew and hermeneutics which is the big word for Bible interpretation. Secondly, I focused on practical theology which included preaching and pastoral care. I now realize that since my graduation from seminary in 1970 I have neglected the study of systematic theology which Barth calls dogmatics. So for me reading Church Dogmatics is major corrective to my ongoing theological education.

Science
I am not accustomed to thinking of theology as a science. To me science deals in the material world with observable data and verifiable experiments while theology deals with intangibles of language and faith. So in what way does Barth consider theology a science? Using formal language Barth describes six characteristics of science. And at this point the editors step in to clarify these requirements which they list as
1) formal consistency,
2) inherent consistency,
3) openness to control through a community of verifiers,
4) antecedent credibility,
5) impartiality, and
6) formalisability.” (page 8).
In Barth’s words this last term means “the possibility of all the propositions being broken up into axioms and theorems and demonstrated on this basis.” (p. 8)

As I understand Barth’s use of the word science, it refers to a method of exploring data rather than the data itself. For Barth, the data of theology, of dogmatics, is the Bible and the writings of the Church over its two thousand year existence. This data can be studied in the same manner as a scientist studies a fish.

Of course Barth is aware that theology is not like other sciences, but he insists that it cannot submit to standards which are valid for other sciences. In a wonderful sentence about theology, Barth writes, “It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos” (page 10).

So in the opening pages of Church Dogmatics Barth announces these three major themes. In the following volumes he will concern himself with the Church and its distinctive talk about God. And he will do this with the painstaking completeness and precision of a scientist carefully and systematically dissecting a fish.

“Where are you going with this?

I recently discussed my Church Dogmatics project with a retired Presbyterian minister friend who asked me, “Where are you going with this?” I didn’t have an adequate answer and I still don’t. I hope to be able to complete my reading of Barth’s massive magnum opus and to write about my experience in a blog on my new website. I intend to share both the content of Barth’s theology and my subjective impressions of it. It would be great if I attracted readers who knew much more about Barth than I do who could offer helpful comments and make corrections of my attempts to understand what I am reading. However, I have to face the fact that I may give up this project in boredom or frustration. I also have to realize that I may not live to complete it.

With this in mind, I was encouraged to discover that Karl Barth never finished his major work. He had envisioned writing five volumes, but in spite of the fact that he worked on it for over thirty years, he never reached volume five and only partially finished volume four. The fact that Barth failed to finish Church Dogmatics inspires me to pursue my project even though I am in my retirement years.

At this stage in my life it is tempting to think I shouldn’t bother with challenging projects because I may never live to complete them. Nevertheless I have launched both short-term and long-term projects that I know I may not complete. I study the Arabic language and nearly every day have conversations via Skype with Palestinian friends in Gaza City and Hebron. I grow tomato plants on my balcony which I grew from seeds. I try to read one book a week. (So far this year I have completed 17 books.) I continue to take cello lessons from my wonderful teacher, Carter Dewberry. Last Saturday night I was thrilled to be allowed to play an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” on my cello in the worship service of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange, California. Learning to play the celIo is a lifetime project. I recall reading that when the legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90, he replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.” On social media and in person I try to be an advocate for two unpopular causes: justice for Palestinians and also civil rights and full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church.

Last Saturday for the first time I noticed a plaque in the entrance to the main sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Orange, California, (where New Hope Presbyterian Church currently meets). Over a list of donors to the building of the church were these words by Nelson Henderson: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

My Barth’s Church Dogmatics project may never be finished, but neither did Barth finish his great work. I find that encouraging.

Reflections on the term “dogmatics”

The term “dogmatics” in the title of Karl Barth’s magnum opus is a far more problematic term than the word “church.” Dogmatics suggests that the author will be rigidly opinionated and arrogant in asserting his ideas. I have an acquaintance who boldly and loudly asserts that homosexuality is a perversion. He refuses to consider the possibility that it is a normal human condition which is my view. When I asked him if he had read any books about homosexuality, he said that he hadn’t and didn’t need to. He just knew that he was right. It is futile attempt a meaningful discussions with such a dogmatic person. So who would want to read a book of dogmatics, especially one that is 9,000 pages long?

I can think of three reasons: First the word dogma simply means doctrine or teaching. According to Dictionary.com, dogma is “an official system of principles or tenets concerning faith, morals, behavior, etc., as of a church.” Synonyms include doctrine, teachings, set of beliefs, philosophy. Again according to Dictionary.com, “At the turn of the 17th century, dogma entered English from the Latin term meaning ‘philosophical tenant.’ The Greek word from which it is borrowed means ‘that which one thinks is true,’ and comes ultimately from the Greek dokein, which means ‘to seem good’ or ‘think.’” The term dogmatics is used in a narrower sense of the study of theological teachings of the Christian Church. Dogmatic theology emphasizes the importance of propositional truth over experiential, sensory perceptions.

Second, we generally don’t mind listening to the dogmatic opinions of people who are well informed. When I go to my doctor I appreciate his certainty in diagnosing my symptoms. When I am a passenger in an airplane, I don’t argue with the pilot who announces that we need to fasten our seat belts due to the rough air conditions. I don’t want to go to an equivocal doctor or fly with a wishy-washy pilot.

Third, I have read enough of Church Dogmatics now to realize that Karl Barth is careful and fair in asserting his opinions. He writes at length about ideas that may differ from his own, but does not back away from clearly articulating his own convictions. A few days ago I was reading a section about the doctrine of the incarnation in volume two and encountered this statement: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.” No doubt about what Barth believes! But that statement is surrounded by a lengthy discussion of the role of the mother of Jesus, whether it is appropriate to call her “the mother of God,” the biblical references to Mary, and how the doctrine of the veneration of Mary developed historically.

So I have come to terms with the title which I understand as the teachings of the Christian Church.

The title of Church Dogmatics

I want to begin my comments on the content of Karl Barth’s massive work by considering the title. My hunch is that the words Church Dogmatics are more repelling than appealing, at least to American readers. If I were submitting a manuscript to a publisher, I would most likely avoid using the word church in the title and I would certainly not use the term dogmatics. The word church feels too limiting and the word dogmatics seems too negative. So I have pondered Barth’s choice of a title and want to share with you some of my thinking.

First of all, we have to realize that the book was written in German rather than English. The title in German is Die Kirchliche Dogmatik. (By the way, one of the primary translators and editors of the authorized English translation of Church Dogmatics was an Englishman named Geoffrey Bromiley who was a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary for nearly 30 years including the four years I attended Fuller.) Barth wrote primarily for German speaking readers who would be aware that church dogmatics was subject taught in universities in Germany and Switzerland. They would be familiar with the term. However, in America we tend to avoid the it. When I studied theology at Fuller, the term systematic theology was used rather than dogmatics.

Today I want to make a few comments on the word church. In my next post I will deal with the term dogmatics. Barth wrote primarily for the Christian Church rather than for the general public. Early in the book Barth writes, “Dogmatics is the self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God” (p. 21). Although Barth was a pastor in the Reformed Church of Switzerland, his writing encompasses the entire Church in the breadth of its denominational expressions and the depth of its history. He interacts with various theological views of his own time and carries on a dialog with Christian thinkers over the span of two thousand years. This is one of the great values of Church Dogmatics. Most books I read by Christian writers deal with the content of the Bible and attempt to apply the Scriptures to present day issues and concerns. They tend to jump from the first century to the twenty-first century ignoring all of the intervening work of thoughtful followers of Jesus Christ which shaped our contemporary views whether we know it or not.

For example when Christians today write or speak about God, they are referring to the Christian understand of God as a Trinity made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The trinitarian view of God is simply assumed by contemporary Christian writers who rarely reflect that this understanding of the nature of God developed over several centuries and that disputes over how to understand the Trinity were frequently quite contentious. In fact the first major split in the Church, the split between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, was over a disagreement of how to understand the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly there were political and social reasons for this division, but the theological reason had to do with how best to describe the Trinity.

In Church Dogmatics Karl Barth carries on a conversation with a long list of Christian thinkers of the past. Not only does he frequently quote Martin Luther and John Calvin, but he interacts with an enormous number of other writers. The last volume of Church Dogmatics has a General Index which contains almost all of the 1,000 names Barth references in the various volumes of Church Dogmatics. This astonishing list goes on for twenty pages referring thinkers from Peter Abelard to Huldrych Zwingli. I have to confess that most of these names were unknown to me. The scope of Barth’s knowledge of the work of Christian thinkers of the past is truly breathtaking. In reading the first volume of his work, I often felt as if I were listening to one end of a telephone conversation as Barth conversed with theologians of former times. I could hear what Barth was saying, but I often did not know the other side of the conversation.

My reading of Church Dogmatics so far has started to increase my understanding of the rich history of Christian thought in the Church universal.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on the second word in the title: dogmatics.

Barth’s Later Years

Since I am eager to get on with the task of sharing my impressions and understanding of Church Dogmatics, I will conclude my sketch of Karl Barth’s life. I am continuing to read about him in Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts by Eberhard Busch. In the future I may relate incidents in his life that are particularly interesting and/or relevant to an understanding of Church Dogmatics. For now I want to summarize the events from his return to Basel, Switzerland, in 1935 until his death there in 1968 at the age of 82.

Soon after Barth returned to Switzerland, he was appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Basel – a position he maintained until his retirement in 1962 at the age of 75.

During World War II Barth continued to speak out against Hitler and support members of the Confessing Church like the courageous German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After the war Barth dedicated himself to the rebuilding and restoration of Germany. In 1948 he delivered the main address at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Never one to hesitate to give his opinion on politics, he wrote that although he opposed communism he regarded anticommunism as a greater evil than communism itself.

From 1956 through 1964 Barth regularly visited and preached to the inmates in the Basel Prison. He said that “there people need firm contact with real life; at the same time the Gospel becomes remarkably relevant and natural of its own accord.” Because the prison’s pulpit was one of the only pulpits Barth occupied late in life, some suggested that in order to hear the famous theologian preach, one had to commit a crime and be put in jail.

In 1960 the now famous theologian befriended Billy Graham in Switzerland and stood out in the rain in Basel to hear Graham preach. Barth liked the American evangelist, but was not favorably impressed with his sermon.

After his retirement, Karl Barth visited the United States for the first time. For seven weeks he traveled across the country giving lectures at various seminaries and universities. As part of his tour, he insisted on visiting Civil War battlefields. At Princeton Theological Seminary Barth had a brief meeting with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Karl & Martin copy

As an indication of Barth’s influence beyond academic and church circles, he was featured in the April 20, 1962, issue of Time magazine which put him on its cover.

Karl Barth died in 1968 in Basel, Switzerland.

There is a popular, but not entirely substantiated, story that during Barth’s tour of the United States, a student once asked the visiting theologian if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth allegedly said something like “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”