Barth, Calvin, and a Sunday Morning

Karl Barth once pointed out the tendency for biblical commentaries to be “no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary.” Barth did go on to highlight the type of commentary he was talking about. He claimed that John Calvin’s Romans was “a real commentary.” Of it, he said “how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to rethink the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which seperate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the child of the sixteenth century hears.”

We do not wish to minimize this counsel. If this is sound advice for commentaries, how much more for sermons. When we stand in front of God’s people, we are expected to do more than simply share our exegesis. Or worse, I fear sometimes we have stood before the assembly and simply shared the exegesis of another. May we energetically “rethink” and “wrestle” the text in ways that it’s voice can be heard clearly in our century.


Walter Brueggemann

The influence of Walter Brueggemann on preaching has continually increased since Finally Comes the Poet was released in 1989. There are many reasons I enjoy his preaching. Among them, I like the way he challenges the powers that be with the word of the Lord. It puts me to mind of John the Baptizer calling out Herod Antipas. When he steps into the pulpit, it just feels like he is there to challenge Pharaoh’s Egypt and its lingering effects. I like that he proposes use of the Old Testament in ways that perhaps are overdue.

Yet, while challenging the powers on some level, he sometimes seems to snuggle up with other political powers. There are times Brueggemann comes across as some imaginative hybrid of Karl Barth and Karl Marx. I enjoy him most when he comes across as a descendant of the prophet Jeremiah.

I think he would agree that he draws from the social sciences, political theories, and the arts to feed his theological imagination. These, at the very least, provide him with some language for his theological proclamation. You do not have to listen to him too many times to realize he wants to prompt thought about economic and political concerns. While none of us would dispute the bible’s interest in such things in its quest for justice, one wonders if Brueggemann tends to overplay their significance as the bible’s primary mission. I can’t help but think he sometimes starts with an ecclesial analysis but winds up with a social-cultural analysis and am left thinking whether he thinks the two are the same.

Brueggemann makes a point to move beyond the historical critical methods of study. Though he may not cast it aside altogether, he does see it as a method born in modernity. Nevertheless, in our wiser moments we will recognize that it should not be the only tool in our hermeneutical toolbox.

Instead, Brueggemann proposes methods that utilize sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism. He claims to prefer these because they make hermeneutics more democratic, “In contrast to older methods that encouraged a kind of expert consciousness.” By encouraging newer approaches “everyone can look at the text and see something.” Indeed, Ben Witherington fears this turns exegesis into something like a Rorschach test where one can simply ask what can be found in the ink blots. We can all admit a danger if we get to tell biblical authors what their text means.

His attempt at hermeneutical correction may go too far. It is dangerous to separate the text from its historical context. Without such a context, the bible becomes a floating document full of phrases suitable for wall hangings and pleasant platitudes but no longer a record grounded in the historical intervention of God.

Due to tendencies to silence the Old Testament, Brueggemann claims to take an ecclesial agenda to the text rather than a Christological agenda. While we might want to applaud his efforts to make sure the Old Testament is heard, he has been accused of avoiding any Christian readings of the Old Testament. If this is true, we may wish to ask him what he thinks of a biblical metanarrative.

Of interest during this conversation, in an examination of postmodern hermeneutics, Brevard Childs uses Brueggemann as exhibit A. He shares a concern that Brueggemann sometimes confuses the human imagination with the Holy Spirit.

I suspect some are unable to see any value Brueggemann brings to the pulpit because of his potentially dangerous hermeneutics. I suspect others will consider me too critical and remind me that Brueggemann has forgotten more than I will ever know. Nevertheless, I consider him one of the most influential preachers of our lifetime. And I look forward to hearing him again later this month at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, D. C. The theme for the conference is “Preaching and Politics” and quite frankly, I am rather excited about what Brueggemann will bring to the pulpit there.

Karl Barth and Exegesis

As the Nazi’s purged the German universities of those who did not think like them, Karl Barth exhorted the students and preachers he left behind with some version of the following quote. (This one is found in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period by Richard E. Burnett).

Dear friends, who have listened to me, the main thing you have heard from me is dogmatics. Dogmatics is a high and steep art. I do not want to deny that, humanly as well, I strive after it with a certain love and desire. And I dare say that I have noticed that many of you have been excited about this subject matter as well. If this now for the moment has come to an end, accept this as a signal for you to temporarily begin anew your studies at a different place. Take now my last piece of advice: Exegesis, Exegesis, and once more, Exegesis! If I have become a dogmatician, it is because I long before have endeavored to carry on exegesis. Let the systematic art, which can also make one mad, rest a little and hold on to the Word, to the Scriptures, which is given to us and become perhaps less systematic and more biblical theologians. For then the systematic and dogmatic tasks will certainly be taken care of as well. That is what I wanted to say to you and in this way I wish to be you farewell.


A Chorus of Witnesses

According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”

This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is.  Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”

“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”

Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”

Exploring Our Story

David Kelsey says that for Karl Barth, the Bible is “one vast loosely-structured non-fictional novel.” He is quoted by William Willimon in Conversations With Karl Barth on Preaching. This becomes important for Willimon because he believes that we do not make up our stories as much as our stories make up us. (For the record, I am in hearty agreement with that thought).

Willimon says that “the novel has become so important in the modern world because we are desperate for some means of order and experience, now that we no longer believe in an Orderer of experience. The novel becomes our means of attempting to make up a story in order to make up a life.” Perhaps Barth would say that this is unnecessary because we already have a story. We can be sure that he would say that “the object of this loosely structured historical novel is none other than Christ himself.”

Barth’s approach to scripture as a history-like narrative promotes an imaginative reading. He speaks of the biblical narratives as “legendary witnesses.” Willimon says that Barth “throws himself into his interpretations, identifies with the characters, treats biblical personalities as contemporaries, delights in discovering some detail of the text that has eluded others, focuses on one word of a text as potentially pregnant with meaning, and, in general, brings a wonderfully naïve, childlike approach to his reading.” Barth says in Homiletics, “the true exegete will face the text like an astonished child in a wonderful garden, not like an advocate of God who has seen all his files.”

Is Barth suggesting that we find ourselves in the text excitedly anticipating what we might find next? Rolling over a stone to see what lies underneath? Digging in up to our elbows? Wading into the deeper parts? Discovering new spaces? Admiring beauty? Appreciating even the thorny parts? Rushing over there to see around the corner? Moving slowly through another space out of reverence? Frequently stopping in awe of what is being said? Continually going back to explore again and again? What will we find over there? What is under here? Behind that? Going in a little further each time? Walking in from a different angle next time to see if it looks different from there?

Time in the text will remind us that we aren’t the first to look at beauty and pronounce it good. We aren’t the first to find ourselves up to our elbows in a creative moment. We aren’t the first to roll away a stone to reveal what is behind it. It may be safe to say that Barth sees himself, as well as the rest of us, in the narrative. And he wants us to come out wide eyed, muddy, bloody, and elbow deep in our story. Excited to tell others where we have been and what we have discovered.

A Conversation for Karl, William and You

William Willimon credits Thomas Long as saying that preaching’s turn to the listener is the most significant homiletical trend of the twentieth century. Willimon then agrees with that assessment and suggests that our homiletical thought has become more interested with rhetorical, rather than theological concerns. He goes onto add that this “accounts in great part for the impoverishment of contemporary preaching.”

It is no secret that Willimon is enamored with Karl Barth. If there are doubts, then read Conversations With Barth on Preaching. So it comes as no surprise that Willimon brings Barth into this conversation. In the discussion “How to Say What God Says” he concludes that Barth has convinced him that listening to God is so much more interesting than listening to listeners.

Barth has been referred to as a “theological poet” and Willimon himself says that he wrote “theology with style.” While Willimon thinks of Barth as a master rhetorician, he is doubtful that Barth would take that as a compliment. Instead, he credits Barth with the development of a new way of speaking about God, as if he invented a new genre.

His preaching took on an explosive manner. I am reminded that someone once said that his Romans fell like “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” His concern was not for the hearer but for the subject matter – God. At the very least, we can agree that this move is counter to the way many contemporary preachers think about preaching. In Conversations, Barth comes across as thinking either that preaching is theological or “a trivial endeavor hardly worth the effort.”

Willimon also invites Aristotle into the conversation who believes that “speaking is a politically significant power play that ought to be used with care.” He goes on to say that most preachers “do not think of themselves as powerful people.” He goes on, “yet anyone who has the gift of words has the potential to alter the world.” Then he adds that “Anyone who stands up and utters, ‘Thus saith the Lord…,’ is thrust into a situation where issues of power and language become primary.”

I do not suspect that Willimon cares whether you agree with him on these things. Or that you are in agreement with Barth. I do suspect that he hopes that such conversations with Karl Barth spur contemporary preachers to “a recovery of nerve, of gospel-induced boldness.”