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Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic

Hancock, Angela Dienhart. Karl Barth’s Emergency Homilietic: 1932-1933 A Summons to Prophetic Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), xxvi + 336. $42.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by David B. Ward (April 29, 2015)



Angela Dienhardt Hancock’s work on Karl Barth’s homiletic has the potential to rescue a beleaguered memory of the preacher Karl Barth from a horde of rightfully disgruntled homileticians. How many homileticians have given audible groans, arched eyebrows, or theatrical rolling of the eyes at the mention of Barth’s injunction against the use of introductions or conclusions in sermons? Even Barth’s seemingly allergic reaction to training for and use of standard sermon forms is puzzling enough.

Teachers and students of preaching have wondered at Barth’s uncanny ability to express succinctly our experience of the impossible necessity of preaching while elsewhere debating the most basic rules of the art. Those who love the dialectical thinking of the great theologian simply ignore his Homiletics (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) as another example of a specialist stepping beyond the limits of his competence. Those who find Barth to be too acontextual, too potentially abused by chauvinists and Eurocentric theologies, see his Homiletics as a case in point. Enter Hancock’s masterful portrayal of the context as well as the multiple texts that gave birth to the singular English–language work, Homiletics.

No reader of Hancock’s book will emerge with the same imagination of Karl Barth with which they entered. The Barthian will find new contextual grist for the appreciation mill. The anti-Barthian will leave tempered in their disavowal—if not awed at his tenacious display of peaceful courage as an alien voice during the violent birth of a totalitarian regime.

The primary thesis of Hancock’s work is that Barth’s lectures on homiletics were attempts to address an emergency situation, a temporary context. This emergency situation was unique in its challenges and required a very careful analysis of the means of protest available to a preacher in an increasingly state-controlled church. There was the very real danger of gaining no hearing whatsoever in any form of theological resistance. The church herself and the majority of her leaders were drunk on the wine of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and revolution for the glory of the German people. Pulpits everywhere preached on themes with politicized introductions and climaxing conclusions heading toward a great “Heil” to the state and eventually Hitler himself as the leader (Führer) of a great German awakening.

Chapter one details the account of Barth’s journey from “theological liberalism to a theology of revelation” (1). The reader is reminded of the history of theological thought in Germany which moved from Ritschl to Troeltsch and left an entire generation surrounding Barth “searching for a way to undermine the epistemological assumptions of historicism itself” (6). The beginnings of major themes for Barth are seen in their seminal form: “self-authenticating” revelation, the “Godness of God,” hidden secularity, the “always miraculous” nature of an understanding of God “breaking in” on human consciousness, the threefold Word of God, and—of course—the dialectical method in relation to the analogia fidei. Even in this brief overview, Hancock begins to lay out her claims that Barth was a theologian of resistance who “began to imagine a theology free enough to call into question every ideology, every hegemony, and every claim to ultimacy that arose from the human sphere, even if it arose from the sphere of the church” (18).

Chapter two outlines Barth’s “theological existence in the Weimar years” (38). Hancock reveals that it was at the end of this period that Barth asked a nationalistic practical theologian-cum-dean, Emmil Pfennigsdorf, to endure Barth’s teaching of a course in Homiletics, Pfennigsdorf’s field. Most of the numerous conflicting parties in the Weimar Republic had this in common: “an unquestioning and unquestioned nationalism” (41). Such nationalism was fueled by a deep embitterment at the Treaty of Versailles, which subjugated the German people to monstrous concessions. The general populace held that this treaty was responsible for their difficult economic circumstances: hyperinflation, 35% unemployment, food scarcity, etc. (50) Hancock outlines the “stab in the back” mythology that pointed to internal traitors—such as communists, Jews, and diverse foreign “others”—as catalysts of Germany’s defeat, humiliation, and subsequent hardship. Hancock clearly outlines how the “Red Pastor of Safenwill,” Swiss citizen, and Social Democrat Barth was able to “keep substantive conversation alive in Bonn” while it denigrated into riots elsewhere (57). He pushed Germans of all persuasions to “dig down into the heart of things, to measure the ever-present claims regarding nation, race, Volk, and church by the one Word that calls them all into question” (90).

In Chapter three, Hancock succeeds in turning some of the most critical views on Barth on their head. She accomplishes this simply by detailing the verbal context in which Barth was teaching: the rhetoric of the Weimar republic. Barth the alleged blind modern spilling out universals becomes Barth at the edge of postmodernity, unsettling universal claims. Barth the Eurocentric becomes Barth the anti-nationalist. In the homiletical realm, Barth’s reputation as a stodgy traditionalist—silent in the face of contemporary evil—emerges as Barth the resourceful voice of resistance. The Barth depicted in these pages is a “relentless critic of nationalism . . . , a member of the Social Democratic Party, someone who was known to reject fascism, anti-Semitism, and militarism, someone who impressed the importance of theological thinking at a time when revolution was in the air” (132). All of Barth’s criticism of relevance or timeliness to the currentzeitgeist came during a time when revolution was not for the minority but against the minority, not for the foreigner but for the oppression of the foreigner, not for a disentangling of state and church but for a hierarchical marriage of the two. Perhaps critical theologians, deconstructionist theologians, feminist theologians, and other postmodern voices can more appreciatively read this Barth.

Chapter four is where homileticians will begin to feel at home. Here Hancock focuses on Protestant proclamation in the academic heritage and cultural settings of the waning Weimar republic. Hancock begins with a brief but clear outline of the Schleirmachian schema for theological education and moves through the development of homiletics post-Schleiermacher. This chapter explores German homiletics through three lenses of competing influences: “Enlightenment rationalism, Lutheran orthodoxy . . . or ‘supernaturalism,’ and pietism” (141). Figures such as Alexander Schweitzer, Theodosius Harnack, Claus Harms, Friedrich August Gottreu Tholuck, Christian Palmer, and even the French Alexandre Vinét are outlined for their contributions and emphases. The chapter concludes by describing how the context of Weimar pressed preachers to believe that German preaching, though in solidarity with “modern man,” was not “close to life” enough (153).

Emil Pfennsigdorf, the homiletician whose territory Barth invades with his lectures on preaching, is portrayed as a culmination of the process of matching German homiletics with the “Germanness” in vogue in 1933. This Volkish, nationalist and triumphalist Hegelianism awoke and saw the light of their new leader (Führer) and cross (the Swastika). Against this backdrop, Hancock introduces us more directly to the Barth who opposed the modern “theme” sermon, who grew uneasy with introductions seeking relevance to the currentzeitgeist, and placed the concern for the hearer in the “widest possible horizon” of “the Godness of God” (181). The strands of Barth’s thoughts that seem to oppose contextual preaching reemerge as clear attempts to resist the use of demographics and contextualization as a means of “persuading the hearer of the nationalist Protestant agenda” (183). What seemed like anti-liberation homiletics, becomes liberationist homiletics in a unique way.

Chapters five and six flow from the careful portrait of Germany chapters one through four established, providing a historically situated way to read Barth’s lectures on preaching. Each week of lectures and discussions is interspersed with the unfolding political, ecclesiastical, and cultural context of the dawn of the Third Reich. Brown shirt Nazi thugs roam the streets meting out violence between lectures. Steel Helmet youth sit in the back of the lecture hall. A political strong-arm battle over who will be the sole bishop emerges. Detractors of Hitler are disappeared. Emmil Pfennigsdorf preaches yet another nationalistic sermon. Heinrich Himmler announces the opening of the first concentration camp for the “protective custody” or people of Communist or Barth’s Social Democratic persuasion (240). Barth was “demoted from his office as senator of the faculty (which designated him as future Dean)” (254). And yet, through all this, the supposedly silent Barth continued his lectures of theological resistance to Germanness and propaganda, ran for ecclesiastical office (a necessarily political move), and began reflecting on with whom he should be arrested and hung if necessary.

In this context, Barth’s table of virtues for homiletics resounds more strongly. Humility becomes important since, in a nationalistic climate, one must guard carefully against assuming the meaning of the text or the meaning of history. Courage emerges as even silence on the issue of Germanness, the Third Reich, or Hitler himself was a dangerous stance to take. Independent honesty arises as resistance to the temptation to falling in with the ranks of marching, saluting, Heil Hitler-proclaiming preachers. This also explains Barth’s allergic reaction to thematic preaching that allowed Nazism to corrupt sermonic content. Even the reading of German newspapers could “poison language from the outside” (310). In all of this, Barth cannot be seen as “politely apolitical,” or as attempting to offer a “universal homiletical blueprint” (327). Hancock argues Barth’s homiletical classroom was a place of peaceful resistance. She has made her case.

Systematic and dogmatic theologians will profit in reading Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic as a glimpse into the practical implications of Barth’s theological thought. Postmodern theologians of any stripe will benefit from a more charitable and—ironically in this case—contextual reading of Barth. Practical theologians in general will find a treasure trove of insight into the theological depth of their tasks, a picture of how easily we stray, and reclamation of a much-maligned practical theological text.

Hancock leans too heavily on the original German for even most academic readers. Her insistence on using the German terms to avoid miscommunication is understandable. Yet even more frequent parenthetical uses of her own glosses would have been helpful. The glossary at the back is an aid in this direction, but not terribly convenient for the uninitiated. Also, it is possible that Hancock may have pushed the pendulum too far the direction of Barth-acceptance. Even though Barth was clearly attempting resistance, it does not follow that his particular attempt was without flaws and failures. Some criticism of his homiletical theory is still warranted, even necessary.

These small concerns aside, Hancock has gifted us with one of the most significant works to date on Karl Barth’s thoughts from a practical theological perspective. It is certainly the most substantive engagement with Karl Barth’s lectures on preaching available. The secondary or supporting elements of Hancock’s work focus on various source documents that give us a more rounded picture of Barth’s lecture series: the unavoidable translation issues related to a German text, a pre-World War II context, and the distance from a twenty-first century audience. Though this is her secondary focus, the fruit of the book in this direction is more than worth the price of entry. As a result, every homiletician who is either traveling along Barthian roads, or seeking to resist the corruption of preaching from oppressive cultural forces must take Hancock as a close companion. Like any good companion, the journey will not only be richer for it, but more enjoyable as well.

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.