William H. Willimon’s Conversations with Barth on Preaching interacts expansively with Karl Barth on a topic dear to the life of the church. While Willimon loves Barth’s theology and theological rhetoric, he has reservations about Barth’s explicit reflections on preaching. Willimon’s work rests on this complex interaction of appreciation and critique. One the one hand, Willimon will assert “I am not a Barthian” and yet say on the next page, “I need Barth.” (3, 4) Creative tension marks Willimon’s attempt to exposit and interact with Barth on preaching.
As a preacher, Willimon makes an interesting statement about the location necessary for understanding Barth’ work: “I do not think that anyone should venture to interpret Barth who is not a preacher, that is, without being a participant in the Holy Spirit-dependent task that Barth assumes” (4). Later in the work, Willimon writes, “It does not take long, wandering through the Dogmatics, to realize that Barth is about the creation of a world through his words. He never speaks as a detached, dispassionate academic, but rather as a preacher seeking to persuade” (95).
Willimon understands Barth’s thought on preaching as the interaction of the positive and negative aspects of Revelation. Positively, God miraculously reveals the Word of God in Christ, Scripture, and Preaching. Negatively, since it is always miracle, there can never be a natural “point of contact” between God and humankind (150ff, where Willimon ably describes Barth’s thought on the “point of contact”). Preaching itself is a Holy Spirit-wrought miracle of grace, a witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, “Easter Speech” (225; cf. also 225-237 where Willimon develops a list of implications of Easter for preaching).
According to Willimon, Barth’s preacher is John the Baptist in Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece. He or she stands off to one side of the Crucified and dares merely to point. Willimon calls these “two Barthian tests for faithful preaching”: “hint, pointing toward, inclination” and “distance, detachment” (6). The preaching task is, therefore, a daring task. Preachers dare “merely to point” to the Crucified and in faith hope for the Word of God (79, 82). There is no human condition for knowing God, but Willimon points out that in the miracle of grace “we can speak about God because God has broken the silence between us and turned to us. God has become objective to us and thereby rescued us from our subjectivity” (71). Without rhetoric, there is no distraction from the Word of God revealed in Jesus, Scripture, and Preaching.
In Willimon’s reading of Barth, the preacher is therefore bound in irony: a preacher must speak a word about God that cannot be spoken. The preacher does not control the Word of God and so cannot “bring” it to the congregation. Instead, he or she can only hope and pray and point (100). Rigorously consistent, Barth explicitly rejected the uses of introductions and conclusions in sermons and leveled a harrowing critique of sermonic “rhetoric” (49, 161). Preachers should preach as though “nothing had happened,” even when that thing was Hitler and the atrocities of the Third Reich (72). Barth did not want preaching to be interesting because it was either useful or relevant. If it was going to be interesting, he wanted it to be interesting because it was the Word of God meeting the congregation in a miracle of grace (47).
Willimon notes, however, that Barth was not altogether consistent in practice with his explicit statements about preaching, showing, for instance, several places where Barth used introductions and conclusions in his own sermons (183-4). On the whole, Willimon finds Barth’s sermons deficient (110). Against Barth’s explicit argument against rhetoric, Willimon raises Barth’s masterful, lively, and energetic rhetoric in Church Dogmatics and other theological writings (2). Willimon wants preachers to emulate Barth’s rhetorical and theological boldness (111-2). Barth’s theological work “shows a connection between the form of his theology and his subject matter [the living Word]” and is a “grand performance of theology” (110-1). According to Willimon, wrapped in its object, preaching should ascend the heights and dredge the depths of the Word, offering it with both skill and humility, always pointing toward the Crucified and conscious of the distance. “Preaching is dramatic, effusive presentation of God’s word, so that God’s word is heard through it, if God wills” (111). Thus, Willimon argues that Barth’s theological style contradicts his explicit rejection of rhetoric in preaching, and Willimon calls for preachers to “reflect upon the peculiar sorts of rhetoric that are demanded by the various aspects of the Gospel” (250).
There seem to be two types of rhetoric involved here, one that Barth is trying to forswear and the other that Willimon is trying to uphold, and they differ according to their aim. The first rhetoric is the kind that seeks the listener in order either to manipulate or touch that “point of contact” between the human and the divine. This is obviously problematic from a Barthian perspective because it “points” the wrong direction. It assumes that instead of pointing toward the Cross, the preacher can point at the audience in order to awaken something either naturally or supernaturally placed within them. The other, second rhetoric is the kind that Willimon seeks to maintain, that “peculiar” rhetoric demanded by the gospel itself, the speech that is true to its object. This is elicited speech, speech designed not to awaken something in the hearer but to bear authentic witness to Revelation. It points to God-in-Christ, not God-in-us.
That this distinction is not explicit in the book points to a frustrating weakness in Willimon’s conversation with Barth. On occasion, Willimon explicates one side of Barth’s understanding, critiques it, and then brings in the other side almost as an afterthought (a related concern are the times when Willimon raises objections from Barth’s contemporaries and then fails to properly respond to them, either for himself or for Barth; 136, 173). As often happens in Barth, the other side exculpates him and renders Willimon’s arguments pointless. Willimon introduces one section this way, “One of the maddening, delightful things about conversation with Barth is that as soon as one has found something to criticize in his position, he manages to contradict or to correct that position” (195). I do not know about Barth, but I do know it is maddening to be following an argument against Barth’s thought only to have the whole argument overturned by a quote from Barth himself, a quote that raises distinctions that neither contradict nor correct the earlier position but show the place in which the argument does and does not work. While such an approach to the project might have ended in a much shorter book, it would have been worthwhile in the formation of Willimon’s rhetoric in relationship to preaching.
Also frustrating are the ways in which the format of Willimon’s book detracts from his substantive engagement with Barth. Willimon’s margins, small-print sections, and sermons add unnecessary clutter. The margins and type-set of the book are small and difficult to read. The difficulty grows when Willimon imitates Barth’s small-print sections in the Dogmatics, but instead of doing his most engaging work there, as Barth did, these sections (offset by different font that does not always appear smaller than the main text) are mainly dispensable, though there are a few exceptions. Willimon spends nearly twenty full pages of small-print on an overview of philosophy from Plato to William James (49-64). Late in the book, he pursues an equally ambitious (if not lengthy) history of rhetoric (86-90). While these two sections might be helpful, they would have fit more appropriately in appendices. The editor’s decision to use endnotes instead of footnotes compounds the problem. While mainly unhelpful items remained in the small-print sections, the real gems (including all the CD references) lay hidden in the back of the book. The full texts of Willimon’s sermons also clutter the reading experience. Conversations with Barth on Preaching could have been fifty to one hundred pages shorter than its current 315 pages while only gaining insight and effectiveness.
While aggravating, these problems do not detract from the usefulness of the book in the hands of an able theologian/homiletician. Willimon’s sometimes deficient conversation with Barth is at least thorough and creative, and his overviews of philosophy and rhetoric would be extremely helpful to seminary classes in preaching or pastoral theology. Also, since the work emphasizes preaching as miracle and witness to God’s reconciling work in Christ, I would suggest this book to any pastor who feels like their preaching is hitting a brick wall and looking for encouragement to enliven their exposition. One cannot interact with Willimon and Barth on the topic without being made aware again of the place, prominence, and power of Christian preaching done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.