“We would also like to pray with our whole heart, ‘O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!’ Hear the Word of the Lord that has come so palpably in our reach in the powerful events of this time. With what an awesome responsibility we burden ourselves if we do not listen to God now! Hear the Word of the Lord—not the word of human beings, not even the word of the pastor.” —Karl Barth, Sermon at Safenwil, September 20, 1914 (A Unique Time of God, 125-6)
When humans celebrate violence and racist ideologies, Christians must listen again to God’s call to repentance. In A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, William Klempa offers a vibrant translation of thirteen sermons Karl Barth preached at the onset of World War I. Distinctive themes of Barth’s theology emerge like prophetic leitmotifs in these sermons amid the cacophony of war and nationalism in Europe: God’s inescapable judgment and mercy, the revelatory power of crises, the immediate claim of the Word of God upon the people of God, the absolute dependence on Jesus and his Kingdom for hope and life.
In the introduction, Klempa succinctly describes how theological luminaries throughout European universities and pulpits embraced jingoist sentiments in 1914. Here readers will find a biographical sketch of Barth’s emerging friendships with fellow pastors like Eduard Thurneysen, as well as Barth’s criticisms of his old professors like Adolf von Harnack, who justified the war. Klempa’s inclusion of these conversation partners furnishes a historical and intellectual context for the evolution of Barth’s own theological convictions, namely that God did not rejoice in this war, but nevertheless would redeem humanity.
The collection of sermons begins amid the tensions of July 1914 and the eruption of war at the end of the month. As early as July 26, 1914—just two days before Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia—Barth preached trenchant criticisms of the ensuing conflict, declaring its potential for death and destruction contrary to the kingdom Christ promised. In his sermon that morning, Barth warns his congregation of the horrors that may soon disrupt or destroy their lives: “barring a miracle, we shall unleash anew hundreds of thousands of men like wild beasts on one another, hundreds of thousands who do not know one another and who have done nothing to harm one another” (52). Barth sets this dreadful scene against the Apostle Paul’s promises of redemption and restoration that rest only with “the living, true God” (56).
In addition to his excellence as a critic of culture, Barth proves to be an adept preacher to the townspeople who gathered in the pews in Safenwil. His sermons include intimate self-disclosure—at times he expresses profound grief about his mentors’ swift acclamation of German nationalism. He also vividly renders contemporary anxieties and God’s enduring faithfulness through the lived experiences of his listeners. We infer from his sermons that some worshippers have come to the church in search of hope after sending siblings and children to the front for Switzerland’s defense. A particularly inspired section is Barth’s plain denial that war is an endeavor blessed by God in a sermon from September 6, 1914:
None of this is God’s will, neither the selfishness and arrogance in human beings, nor the mutual hatred of the nations, nor their anxieties about one another and their threatening armaments, nor finally that they mutually attack life with both precise and heavy firing power at sea, on land, or in the air. All these things are completely alien to the innermost being of God . . . God is as distant from them as from their enemies in the wrath with which their actions fill God. But God is also as distant from them in the love that God wants to bestow to draw both sides out of their confusion. And this indeed remains the same in victory or in defeat (111).
Many of the sermons in A Unique Time of God turn on this axis of God’s judgment and grace amid the unfolding crisis of war. The bellicose nationalism, the arrogance of rival cultures, the confidence in human righteousness, all of it compounds to humanity’s disastrous self-destruction and deserved condemnation. And yet, throughout this conflict, God’s righteousness and steadfast love become known to modern Europeans through the Word of God and its promises.
A few questions remain after reading A Unique Time of God. As a teacher of homiletics, I wonder how unusual Barth’s sermons were at that time. Klempa keeps the introduction moving along instead of distracting the reader with knotty digressions, and yet, I wanted to know a little more about the customs and content of preaching in that day. Were Barth’s denouncements of the war sui generis among Reformed pastors? Was he part of a band of preachers who shared similar misgivings across confessional lines? Did any prominent European pastors condemn the war from their own pulpits? A brief comparison with other sermons—perhaps especially from talented preachers who avidly endorsed the war—might have helped further define Barth’s positions amid the theological and pastoral currents of his day.
Nevertheless, these sermons are a welcome addition to the growing library of Barth’s early work in English. Klempa’s translation is fresh and inviting; he revives these sermons from a century ago with clarity and grace. Barth’s style comes across often as familiar and conversational, elsewhere impassioned, and always brilliant. Each Sunday’s sermon hints at ideas that mature in his Göttingen lectures, and later swell into his grand symphony, the Church Dogmatics.
These primary sources invite us to understand the young Barth and his theological commitments in greater detail. More than that, A Unique Time of God provides examples of how a preacher can allow God’s Word to speak to the great crises of the present day. Klempa deserves our thanks for bringing Barth’s words to life in our own language, at a time when so many of us hope and pray that God is speaking through God’s Word to us, even now.
Andrew Scales, Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton Theological Seminary and Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University
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.